This 20th January my — & I would think most of our — feet were solidly planted on the ground (wherever that was, a few feet in front of TV or on D.C. tarmac) taking in the presidential inauguration — on my part at least, drinking it in, in fact, like someone dying from thirst after an eight-year crawl through the wilderness. And yes, I did shed a tear or so, held my breath on occasion & laughed out loud when the ex-Vice President had to slip into pure Dr Strangelove drag to make his exit. The only seriously problematic moment in the proceedings came for me with Elizabeth Alexander’s poem: no matter how much I tried to convince myself that I shouldn’t expect anything, that the very fact that a poet was present at the inauguration was a positive, the poem — & even more so the dead-as-a-doornail reading of it — made me cringe & worse. I decided not to let it ruin my day & wandered off to fill my glass in the kitchen & when I returned was indeed buoyed by the wonderfully droll rhyming color-schemes of Rev. Joseph Lowery closing benediction. (Have meanwhile read a suggestion somewhere that those lines were a quote from Muhammad Ali’s writings — & would love to know if there’s abything to that rumor.)
I wasn’t going to talk about this on Nomadics, but I came across a little article in the Frankfurter Rundschau, which I wanted to quote. It is a review — not of the whole Obama inauguration, but of the poem only — by the poet Durs Grünbein, who it so happens is a recipient of the Büchner Prize for poetry (you just can’t keep Lenz away for long, & certainly not on a 20th of Jänner.) Here then, a few of the salient takes on Alexander’s opus by one of the major contemporary poets:
That was a rather weak inauguration-poem, not much of an alleluia. “Praise song for the day”, a song of praise for a day that didn’t necessarily have to be this one — and one can understand it thus also as: not for some day beyond this day, thus a praise song with limited shelf life. But that was too little for the occasion, for a day of such historical scope. A nice piece of everyday lyric poetry with a very conventional metaphorical structure and a whiff of “Family of man” rhetoric, something that always works in America, the evocation of a democratic community of the people. The whole was very far from the epiphanic moments of a Walt Whitman, from the astonishment with which he discovers one day his compatriots as very ordinary and beautiful people.
And he ends with wondering if Obama is the first left-handed President in the White House. (Well, James Garfield, Gerarld Ford, Bush I & Clinton were too. So it doesn’t mean much.) I wish Obama’s politics were more firmly anchored on that side…