Thursday, January 29, 2009

Poetry Friday: Elizabeth Alexander & Katha Pollitt

In honor of Poetry Friday, I would like to offer up two thoughts:

1) Praise for A Praise Song for the Day, which I thought struck just the right We-the-People chord at Barack Obama's inauguration - Elizabeth Alexander was plainspoken where she needed to be, musical where she needed to be. And writing an occasional poem which you know many millions of people will be listening to when you read- well, the word "daunting" comes to mind. In fact, I think it's amazing Ms. Alexander didn't faint - she was calm and articulate and spoke from the heart, and I say hurray. This is only the fourth time in American history that a poet has been asked to create and read a poem for a Presidential inauguration. If you want to see the poem written on the page, as many people do (they like it better after seeing it) you can find it here. And you can listen to Alexander read it at the inauguration here.

Elizabeth Alexander

2) This lovely poem by Katha Pollitt, whose prose I know from her "Subject to Debate" columns (wonderful!) in THE NATION but whose poetry I was unfamiliar with. She published her first book of poetry, Antarctic Traveller, twenty-five years ago (it won the National Book Critics Circle Award) and her second book, The Mind-Body Problem, will be released in June. (How do you win a NBCC Award for your poetry and then stop writing poetry?) In any case, I've been looking back over her work and I like it quite a lot. I look forward to reading the new book.

Small Comfort

Coffee and cigarettes in a clean cafe,
forsythia lit like a damp match against
a thundery sky drunk on its own ozone,

the laundry cool and crisp and folded away
again in the lavender closet-too late to find
comfort enough in such small daily moments

of beauty, renewal, calm, too late to imagine
people would rather be happy than suffering
and inflicting suffering. We're near the end,

but O before the end, as the sparrows wing
each night to their secret nests in the elm's green dome
O let the last bus bring

love to lover, let the starveling
dog turn the corner and lope suddenly
miraculously, down its own street, home.

Katha Pollitt

The Poetry Friday Roundup this week is over at Adventures in Daily Living.


  1. I have to say, I felt a little intimidated in that room full of writers while listening to Ms. Alexander's poem because I just wasn't feeling it. It was one of those "I don't get it" moments that makes me doubt I understand poetry.

    A week later, after hearing others talk about it, tracked down the text and read it on my own and "got" it. I think it was her delivery that didn't work for me, but in my own head, in a cadence that made sense to my inner ear, and perhaps free of hearing it first in a room full of writers I admire, the poem and I finally found some common ground.

    Daunting? In a word. How does anyone perform art on command? I remember hearing her talk on NPR a few weeks before the inauguration about how she was approaching the poem and I kept thinking "You haven't even written it yet?!" On that front I found it amazing.

  2. I really enjoyed Alexander's poem and was moved to tears by it. I am going to have to find the text again to read over and over. So much has happend in my personal life in the last 10 days I think I really need to hear it again.

    Your Pollitt poem is so beautiful too - I just love that image of the last bus, the sparrows turning, the dog loping down the home road. Love returning to the lover. Comforting indeed.

  3. Julie,

    I agree with you about Alexander's striking the right chord at Obama's inauguration. I liked her inaugural poem even better and felt it was more fluid after reading it at I think seeing the poem divided into stanzas helped.

  4. There seems to be this common reaction to Alexander's poem - that it gets better when you see it on the page. I didn't feel that way when I was listening to her; to my ear, her delivery was good - but I listen to an awful lot of poets as they read, so I often "see" the text as its spoken. The fact is, a lot of people felt left behind by Alexander's poem - not engaged. If you want to see her deliver it again, it's on YouTube at
    and I think now, listening to it, I can hear how hard she is trying to make each word clear, so that it sails out over that huge crowd. "Say it plain, that many have died for this day...." - that's a hard sentiment to get into a poem. "What if the mightiest word is love?" That's another good line and a question that deserves to be asked. But the loveliest was when she said things like "All about us is noise, all about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din, each one of our ancestors on our tongue." And "We encounter each other in words, words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed." I loved the sounds in "brick by brick the glittering edifices" and "in today's sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made" - that shows good control. Also, the lovely resolution: "...on the brink, on the brim, on the cusp, praise song for walking forward in that light."

    I'd like to hear her read it in a small room, not worried about a microphone and 2 million people on the National Mall.

  5. P.S. You can read the poem here:

  6. Count me in with the others who didn't "get" Alexander's poem until I read it for myself. But your explanation makes sense. The crowd was immense and the pressure quite daunting.

    What hit me in the Pollitt poem was.

    ", too late to imagine
    people would rather be happy than suffering"

    So many times I have felt just that way. Thanks for sharing.

  7. I stopped by to say that I loved "Saved." I was a little skeptical at first, having had Cheryl Savageau's poem "What I Saved" evoked (for me) and all the workshop exercises about Saving...but it was polished -- and lovely. I thought I'd be pretty darn pleased had I written it and I'd proudly send it out to journals. I still don't understand how people turn out anything between Monday and Friday. Amazing.
    And about the inaugural poem -- heard it, cried, and let it go.

  8. Nice post. I didn't mind Alexander's delivery (like most folks I know), but I really liked the poem much better after reading it online the day after the inauguration.

  9. And coming back around, how interesting and hopeful that so many people sought out the poem after hearing it. What a thing, to have people hearing a poem for the first time all at once, and then go looking for it, to reread it, savor it, examine it, ponder and process.