Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette

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Discussion: Critiquing "Praise Song for the Day"

President Barack Obama chose to include a poem in his inauguration activities, "Praise Song for the Day" by Elizabeth Alexander. Many people have spoken about the poem's uplifting qualities. In this article, however, Moeursalen expresses considerable dissatisfaction. Well, I've spent time as a literature student and an editor; I'm capable of dissecting a poem and starting a discussion. Let's see where it takes us.

Most of the criticism in the article is vague, and seems to address culture more than the actual poem; it mainly boils down to an accusation of irrelevance. Perhaps Moeursalen's life experience differs greatly, but I have done or seen many of the things in that poem. They're just not the kind of things that, perhaps, leap readily to the mind of middle-class-or-higher readers and writers as being things that people actually still do. So let's call the point of relevance ... debatable.

Another point raised in the article was that previous poets recited from memory while Elizabeth Alexander read hers. I think. That's not laid out as explicitly as I would've done if I'd been complaining about such a thing. Yes, it is more impressive when a poet recites from memory than reads from a page. But you know what? We can't fairly complain about that, as a culture, because we neither reward it widely nor teach it consistently. Only a few times in school was I ever asked to memorize a poem, and that was by old teachers. People younger than me usually haven't done it at all, and it was patchy long before I arrived. It's one thing to criticize someone for not being able to do something routine, and quite another to fuss because someone lacks a now-obscure skill that we have collectively allowed to fade. I'm not pleased that it's fading, but I'm not inclined to hammer an individual for a culturewide issue. (Here's how to memorize a poem, in case you want to learn.)

Let's take a look at the poem itself, searching for good and bad points...


Praise Song for the Day
A Poem for Barack Obama's Presidential Inauguration

She's using a title:subtitle format, which is fairly common in occasion-based poetry. It's a good idea to tag the occasion explicitly for the convenience of later generations. "Praise Song" places the poem in the category of salutory poetry, which it partly is -- the mood is hopeful and celebratory -- but it doesn't do what a proper praise poem does (hail in detail the recipient) nor is it in the poetic form of a song. Also worth noting is "the day" which appeared in some old slave songs as a reference to emancipation. The title is aesthetic, the subtitle more descriptive. Revision would've helped here, but these aren't bad.


Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other's
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.

The verses of the poem are written in unrhymed triplets, a good structure for cultures using 3 as a significant number. The lines generally have excellent cadence; they're easy to read and carry the reader briskly through the poem, even in the absence of regular meter and rhyme.

However, I am not thrilled by the line breaks. Some are end-stopped while others are enjambed. While enjambment can work well in some poems, here I find it jarring and distracting from the intended mood of things coming together in a positive and orderly fashion. Notice how the first line flows elegantly into the second, but the second line trips over the break between "other's" and "eyes." Revision could have fixed this -- especially if the poet read it aloud to practice. Poems with end-stopped lines are much better suited to live recitation than enjambed poems, which can be more visually interesting on paper.

Also, her handling of repetition varies in quality. The close repetition of "noise" costs her points. That's usually a sign of sloppiness: the poet simply doesn't notice, or notices but doesn't bother to swap in a fresh word. Repetition works best when handled deliberately as part of a poem's structure, and this isn't doing that. The repetition of "All about us..." is much better done. Repetition is a prominent motif in African and traditional African-American poetry.

Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

These two verses work well as a set. They begin with the same phrase, "Someone is..." which helps unite them. Yet they focus on two different, complementary types of action: repair and creation.

The awkward problem of mixing end-stopped and enjambed lines continues. The use of frontal repetition would've worked better if it had been been applied more consistently throughout the poem.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky.
A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark
the will of some one and then others, who said
I need to see what's on the other side.

The first verse of these three is an excellent verse. Each line ends firmly, including the brilliant final phrase "Take out your pencils. Begin." Core citizens are featured: a mother, a farmer, a teacher. Rich symbolism appears in the bus (transportation = moving forward, progress), sky (change, and perhaps a subtle nod to global warming), and writing (test = difficulty, and a reference to all the important writing a President does).

But that fine verse is marooned between two pairs of verses. It needs a companion; as mentioned earlier, more consistent repetition would have made this a much stronger poem.

The second and third verses of the three are a matched pair, beginning with "We" and an action verb. The second verse has some good word play in the parallel pairs of words. However, the mix of repetition styles ("words, words" and "consider, reconsider" and the "or" phrases) tugs attention back and forth rather than setting a pattern and keeping it.

The third verse sets up an interesting image with crossing instead of following roads, then crashes and burns in the last line: roads show the will of explorers in the direction the road goes, not on the opposite side of the road. Also, note the inconsistent use of italics for marking spoken communication in the first of these three verses, and its absence in the last verse.

I know there's something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,

picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

About halfway through the poem, the narrator's voice abruptly shifts from inclusive "we" to exclusive "I." Voice shifts in a poem can work, if handled regularly and introduced early; in the middle like this, it almost always looks bad. It suddenly divorces the reader from the narrator, jarring one's mind out of the poem.

The second and third of these three verses go together, because now -- for the first time -- the enjambment sprawls across the gap between verses. The concepts (laying the infrastructure and raising the buildings) are good, but would have stood much better if contained each in their own verse.

There's a nice nod to ancestor reverence, a mainstay of African and African-American cultures. The last line of the third verse in this set makes a wonderful image, driving home that this poem is really about the experience of working-class (or lower) people who really did build most of this country. I think "within" would've been a tighter end than "inside of" but that's a quibble.

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

This verse opens with a sentence fragment. Unless you know exactly what you're doing, and handle them consistently with something like a broken voice throughout or with regular repetition, fragments will get you in trouble more often than not. They create a jarring effect, and they tend to make it look like you don't know how to write a complete sentence. You can break the rules in poetry, but you have to make it look better than following the rules would look. I don't see that happening here.

Furthermore, this verse ties into the title and the final line of the poem. It's a rough connection, though, and not really sufficient. It also continues to half-miss what a praise poem really does; this is more indirect than direct praise, and it's talking around Obama than about him. That would've worked better if the overall construction was more consistent, one way or the other. What we really have is a poem that praises the people in general rather than the fellow they elected: a fine idea, but not quite a perfect match for the inauguration theme. Obama's campaign may be all about the people, but it's him we picked: he should've been in here more visibly, for this type of occasion poem.

The last line of this verse runs headlong into a lexical gap of English. It's not easy to express the idea of getting together, collectively and congenially, to discuss and analyze a situation, and then to form a plan and act on it. I sympathize with the challenge; the image sketched out does work; but the linguistic delivery is far from elegant.

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
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,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

These two verses are stuck together because the last line of one feeds into the topic of the next. That's awkward. First, it truncates the topic of the first verse in the pair, which ought to have ended with some kind of observation about either the similarities or the differences of the cited creeds, or their implications for society or the people holding them. Second, "What if the mightiest word is love?" is the logical beginning of that second verse; it doesn't have nearly the punch when stuck on the end of the previous verse.

The second verse of the pair is another sentence fragment. Its structure doesn't separate, frame, and present the ideas as clearly as they could be. The repetition of "love" gets to be a little much, too, but at least it's regular in this verse. Note that this is line-by-line heading word repetition, rather than the other types of repetition used elsewhere: a bit of a kitchen-sink approach to the technique.

The image of the "pool of light" is eye-catching, though.

In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

praise song for walking forward in that light.

The ending is better crafted than much of the previous material. The triplet is comfortably end-jammed, the imagery is vivid, and that break offsetting the final memorable line actually works. It's the most important line in the poem, so it deserves to be set up with a pause and then to stand alone.

Out of all that analysis of the poem's flaws and virtues, does it add up to a good or a bad poem in my opinion? Good. Why? The flaws don't show up much unless you go looking for them and know how to analyze them. The worst problem is the enjambment, and a competent performance could disguise that entirely. The imagery scintillates. The mood totally nails the mood of the occasion itself. My first reaction on reading this poem a few days ago was, "Oh, how lovely!" I didn't spot the technical issues until I went looking for them. The poem works, becasue it's job is to move people's emotions, and it does that.

It works in spite of its flaws, not because of them. Don't take this as an endorsement of sloppy writing. It's a good poem. It could have been great. That's disappointing, in retrospect. But I'm more disappointed in the critical article, which could have done a great deal more for the state of poetry analysis. My critique here follows the fairly casual flow of my blog; if were doing this for a magazine or a class exercise, I'd tighten it up more. But I want to give you folks room to chime in.

So ... what do you think about "Praise Song for the Day" ...? What worked for you and what didn't work? Why? What would you have done differently?
Tags: discussion, poetry, reading, writing

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