Friday, January 23, 2009

Inaugural poem: Praise Song for the Day

I guess the tradition of reading a poem at a president's inaugural goes back to Robert Frost at JFK's swearing in. Before Obama invited Elizabeth Alexander to read her "poem" this week, the only other one I recall was the super-blowhard Maya Angelou at Bill Clinton's first inaugural: "A Rock, A River, A Tree; Hosts to species long since departed; Marked the mastodon." What a lousy country we are if we cannot call that crap crap.

Generally speaking, poetry sucks. American poetry. Spanish poetry. Swahili poetry. For every good poem there are ten thousand bad ones -- words thrown together haphazardly, making little sense. If Jackson Pollock had been a writer and not an "artist," he would have been a poet.

I re-realized how much I hate poetry when Ms. Alexander recited "Praise Song for the Day" at Obama's swearing-in on Tuesday. In the way that rap artists sample previously recorded music, her trite rendition made me think she was sampling from television, movies and books:

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

Isn't that line lifted from Chance the Gardner in Being There? At least he could excuse himself, being mentally retarded.

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

Now she's stealing almost word for word from Dom DeLillo's overrated novel, White Noise. (That book has its moments. The language is playful and the whole Hitler Studies bit is funny. But the plot goes nowhere, the characters are dull and as a slice of life, it rings false. Despite its failings, I am told Lit majors in college today are forced to read it. That says a lot about the yokels teaching Literature.)

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

Meet Ozzie and Harriet Nelson.

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

Definitely Hee Haw!

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

I'm trying to remember which 1970s TV commercial she stole that image from. I'd prefer, "An Italian actor, dressed up, to look like. An American Indian Chief, stands over a highway, and cries. When he sees whitey, polluting."

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

"You're traveling through another dimension -- a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That's a signpost up ahead: your next stop: the Poem Zone!"

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. I know there’s something better down the road.

I can't recall which actor said that line first. It was either Corky in Life Goes On. Or Benny in L.A. Law. Too bad we don't have more retards on TV these days.

We need to find a place where we are safe. We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Mr. Magoo was always walking into that which he could not 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.

Dolly Parton, fake boobs and all, said it better: "Working nine to five, what a way to make living; Barely getting by, it's all taking and no giving. They just use your mind, and they never give you credit. It's enough to drive you crazy, if you let it."

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

The nuclear family sitting at their kitchen table contemplating The One? "I am Parker Griffith and I approved this ad."

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?

Speaking of Love -- Reggie Love, the former Duke Blue Devil, who played on the 2001 championship team that featured Carlos Boozer, Shane Battier, Jason Williams, Mike Dunleavy, Jr., Chris Duhon, and Dahntay Jones, is a close friend, basketball buddy and bodyguard of the president. On Obama's court, certainly, 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.

Love American Style! My favorite episode was the pilot for Happy Days. It featured Ron Howard as Richie Cunningham, Marion Ross as Marion, and Anson Williams as Potsie. The actors who played Howard, Joanie and Richie's brother Chuck were all different from those who made it onto the series.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air, any thing can be made, any sentence begun.

Except for a sentence which is worth writing, apparently.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp, praise song for walking forward in that light.

I recall, after Sarah Palin did not screw up terribly in her vice-presidential debate with Joe Biden, the idiots on Fox News praised her "great performance." She exceeded expectations. But to me, Sarah Palin was, at best, Tracy Flick, the pretentious high school chick played by Reese Witherspoon -- brilliantly -- in Election. I doubt Tracy Flick would have composed a less original poem than Ms. Alexander did.

No comments: