Inauguration Day poet delivers verse in a tradition of hope.
She is only the fourth poet in American history to share her verse at a presidential inauguration. Elizabeth Alexander wrote Praise Song for the Day to celebrate the swearing in of her friend, and former University of Chicago colleague, Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States.
But in the world of poetry, Jan. 20, 2009, is more likely to be remembered as the poetry reading with the largest audience in global history. The new president responded to Alexander’s poem with clear pleasure, but among her millions of other listeners reaction was more mixed.
Within hours of Alexander’s reading, the Internet was buzzing with both praise songs and harsh criticism of the poem, which is being published by Graywolf Press this week.
As might be expected, politics entered into the controversy. Obama supporters tend to praise Alexander’s poem without citing specific passages. Obama detractors, on the other hand, are more likely to quote from the text, sometimes attributing nefarious socialist ideology to words as ambiguous as the pronoun “we.” Interestingly – few, pro or con – bothered to judge the value of Alexander’s poem in light of previous inaugural poetry.
Former US poet laureate Billy Collins noted before the inauguration about Alexander’s challenge, “I don’t envy her. Such poems are nearly impossible to bring off.” Collins attributed the challenge of a successful inauguration poem to “the heaviness of the subject.”