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Autumn 2014
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By Stefan Kanfer

The Voodoo That They Did So Well: The Wizards Who Invented the New York Stage.

Eye on the News

Stefan Kanfer
Another for the Stuffed Owl
Elizabeth Alexander manages to compose history’s 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 Moore’s salute to a colleague:

Lord Byron was an Englishman
A poet I believe
His first words in old England
Was poorly received

But that was before the Obama inauguration. If any publishing house decides to issue Stuffed Owl II, Elizabeth Alexander’s “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 land’s.” Then came Maya Angelou’s “On the Pulse of Morning,” a mind-numbing inventory read at President Clinton’s first inaugural in 1993:

So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew,
The African and Native American, the Sioux,
The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek
The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheikh,
The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
The privileged, the homeless, the teacher.

This was followed by “Of History and Hope,” Miller Williams’s cascade of Hallmark-card banalities recited at Clinton’s second inaugural in 1997:

We mean to be the people we meant to be,
To keep on going where we meant to go,
But how do we fashion the future? Who can say how
Except in the minds of those who will call it Now?

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 didn’t parse. One doesn’t “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 Owl–worthy 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 poetry’s 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.

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