The Alexander Poem, Durs Grünbein, Lenz, etc.


This 20th of January I was not able to do what I like doing on that day of the year: reread Georg Büchner’s Lenz (there is bilingual edition with an excellent translation by Richard Sieburth available from archipelago books) & Paul Celan’s writings about Büchner & Lenz — the man who on a 20 January, walking through the mountains from Alsace into Germany, went mad and thought — according to Büchner — that what he really wanted was to walk on his head, so that he would have the sky as abyss beneath him.

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.

Grünbein goes on to suggest that the most poetic line of the whole proceedings was Diane Feinstein’s “The sweet reality of this hour.” Not sure if I agree with this (see above on Rev. Lowery) but I do think he’s right when he writes: ” A song of praise at this a time and on such an occasion is certainly a major challenge. But a beautiful challenge. Where an oath is taken, and a prayer is spoken, a poem cannot do any harm either. Festive music on such an occasion is widely accepted. But I think that the word is even more important in that place. It is in fact absolutely essential. Poetry is not the dessert of politics, it is the truth that dawns behind all politics. Most politicians get this mixed up, which is why their speeches are so poor.”

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…

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3 opinions on “The Alexander Poem, Durs Grünbein, Lenz, etc.”

  1. The problem with Elizabeth Alexander’s “song” is that it is focused only on intellectual exegesis. The constant repetitions throughout her poetry, I assume, were suppose to elicit new meaning with each token. Unfortunately, this was so much mental exercise, a delimiting of various simple concepts, and just that. Even if we forgive the lack of incite because of its occurrence in a socially moderated event, our exhaustion at the exercise was entirely disproportionate to its mundane results. Lowery was the only person present on the platform to adequately affirm the joy the audience exuded. Even the musical performances were restrained and absurdly conventional for the inauguration of a president who by American standards is anything but.

  2. Ah, well, but Durs did not point out the left-handedness to pun, rather cheaply, that someone snuck a “lefty” into the White House. He seems to think–an assumption dangerous enough on its own–that to be left-handed improves one’s dialectic. (Even for the ambidextrous I wouldn’t like to assume such a thing.) So Durs, you see, is not looking for a lefty, but for–yawn–even-handedness. (And what a bastardization of dialectics that is!)

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