What struck me the most from today’s stately ceremonies was the hackneyed poem written and delivered by Elizabeth Alexander for the occasion. It aptly commences with unremarkable clichès,
Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each others’ eyes or not, about to speak or speaking…
and crests into prosaic platitudes,
Some live by “Love thy neighbor as thy self.”
Others by first do no harm, or take no more than you need.
What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial, national.
Oh please, spare us. This was the point where I cringed and almost flipped the channel.
It must be hard for a poet to be tasked to speak authentic words in such formal, official, and, by nature, superficial events, which are occasions for the oratory rather than poetry. Poetry, to be authentic, must answer to none other than the contingencies of the poet’s inward life. It is first and foremost private; it becomes only public when, as Adam Kirsch observes, “the public intersects, or interferes, with that [inward] experience–when history usurps privacy”. Otherwise, the speech merely becomes bureaucratic verse: “spoken by no one and addressed to no one” (On Elizabeth Alexander’s Bureaucratic Verse, The New Republic, 20 Jan 2009).
Even Robert Frost, on the occasion of the inauguration of JFK, to which Obama is constantly compared to by the media and his adoring fans, could not be more staid:
Summoning artists to participate
In the august occasions of the state
Seems something artists ought to celebrate.
Today is for my cause a day of days.
And his be poetry’s old-fashioned praise
Who was the first to think of such a thing.
This verse that in acknowledgement I bring
Goes back to the beginning of the end
Of what had been for centuries the trend;
A turning point in modern history.
Colonial had been the thing to be
As long as the great issue was to see
What country’d be the one to dominate
By character, by tongue, by native trait,
The new world Christopher Columbus found.
The French, the Spanish, and the Dutch were downed
And counted out. Heroic deeds were done.
Elizabeth the First and England won.
Now came on a new order of the ages
That in the Latin of our founding sages
(Is it not written on the dollar bill
We carry in our purse and pocket still?)
God nodded his approval of as good.
So much those heroes knew and understood,
I mean the great four, Washington,
John Adams, Jefferson, and Madison
So much they saw as consecrated seers
They must have seen ahead what not appears,
They would bring empires down about our ears
And by the example of our Declaration
Make everybody want to be a nation.
And this is no aristocratic joke
At the expense of negligible folk.
We see how seriously the races swarm
In their attempts at sovereignty and form.
They are our wards we think to some extent
For the time being and with their consent,
To teach them how Democracy is meant.
“New order of the ages” did they say?
If it looks none too orderly today,
‘Tis a confusion it was ours to start
So in it have to take courageous part.
No one of honest feeling would approve
A ruler who pretended not to love
A turbulence he had the better of.
Everyone knows the glory of the twain
Who gave America the aeroplane
To ride the whirlwind and the hurricane.
Some poor fool has been saying in his heart
Glory is out of date in life and art.
Our venture in revolution and outlawry
Has justified itself in freedom’s story
Right down to now in glory upon glory.
Come fresh from an election like the last,
The greatest vote a people ever cast,
So close yet sure to be abided by,
It is no miracle our mood is high.
Courage is in the air in bracing whiffs
Better than all the stalemate an’s and ifs.
There was the book of profile tales declaring
For the emboldened politicians daring
To break with followers when in the wrong,
A healthy independence of the throng,
A democratic form of right devine
To rule first answerable to high design.
There is a call to life a little sterner,
And braver for the earner, learner, yearner.
Less criticism of the field and court
And more preoccupation with the sport.
It makes the prophet in us all presage
The glory of a next Augustan age
Of a power leading from its strength and pride,
Of young amibition eager to be tried,
Firm in our free beliefs without dismay,
In any game the nations want to play.
A golden age of poetry and power
Of which this noonday’s the beginning hour.
Ugh! Thank God the sun shone so bright on the snow that solemn day, the glare prevented the venerable poet from reading his long-winded manuscript, and went instead with the shorter, less cringe-kindling The Gift Outright that he recited from memory.
Of all the pompous outpourings today, what stirred me the most was actually the beginning of Rev. Joseph Lowery’s benediction (nevermind the flak he got for the rest of it):
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, thou, who has brought us thus far along the way, thou, who has by thy might led us into the light, keep us forever in the path we pray, lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee, lest our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee.
Shadowed beneath thy hand, may we forever stand true to thee, oh God, and true to our native land.
A little research on the Internet led me to the poem from which these unacknowledged anachronistic lines came from: Lift Every Voice and Sing, more popularly known as The Negro National Anthem, by James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938), written to celebrate the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, and sung in Jacksonville, FL, for the first time by children.
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears… Here is an occasion where the spheres of private and public life intersect, where “history usurps privacy”, and the authentic voice is heard.