A quarterly magazine of urban affairs, published by the Manhattan Institute, edited by Brian C. Anderson.
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Another for the Stuffed Owl
Elizabeth Alexander manages to compose historys worst inaugural poem.
21 January 2009
In 1930, the British writer D. B. Wyndham Lewis published The Stuffed Owl, subtitled An Anthology of Bad Verse. Most of the unintentionally dreadful poems were by Britons, among them William Wordsworth and Poet Laureate Colley Cibber. But Lewis felt it necessary to include an outstanding American, Julia Moore, known in the nineteenth century as The Sweet Singer of Michigan. For decades it was thought that no bard could come close to Moores salute to a colleague:
Lord Byron was an Englishman
But that was before the Obama inauguration. If any publishing house decides to issue Stuffed Owl II, Elizabeth Alexanders Praise Song for the Day must surely be the centerpiece.
Only three inaugural poems preceded hers. In 1961, Robert Frost prepared a contribution after John F. Kennedy was sworn in. Happily, the paper was blown away, and from memory the poet recited a much better one, beginning The land was ours before we were the lands. Then came Maya Angelous On the Pulse of Morning, a mind-numbing inventory read at President Clintons first inaugural in 1993:
So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew,
This was followed by Of History and Hope, Miller Williamss cascade of Hallmark-card banalities recited at Clintons second inaugural in 1997:
We mean to be the people we meant to be,
As appalling as those efforts were, they cannot touch the cringe-making work of Alexander, a Yale professor. Eschewing rhyme, she provided her impression of America on Inauguration Day:
Someone is trying to make music somewhere with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.
Even on its own terms, the line didnt parse. One doesnt make music with a boom box, one turns on music made by others. Not content with inaccuracy and prose posing as lyricism, Alexander then added her own ungrammatical laundry list:
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 keep clean and work inside of.
Still, the gallumphing finale was what gave the poem its inimitable, Stuffed Owlworthy flavor:
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 preempt grievance.
Dana Gioia, outgoing head of the National Endowment for the Arts, once lamented the state of poetry in the U.S. Over the past half century, he noted, as American poetrys specialist audience has steadily expanded, its general readership has declined . . . it has retreated from the center of literary life. Those who seek the reason why need look no farther than Praise Song for the Day. With celebrants like Professor Alexander, Obama needs no disparagers.
Stefan Kanfer, a contributing editor of City Journal and a former editor of Time, is the author of a dozen books, most recently Somebody: The Reckless Life and Remarkable Career of Marlon Brando.