Elizabeth Alexander delivers for President Obama.
It was wonderful. Amid the grand pageantry, Elizabeth Alexander evoked the individual, without blatant symbolism, every politician’s favorite ploy, and her Inauguration Day poem was all the more powerful for it.
Its simple images — “Someone is stitching up a hem, darning a hole in a uniform, patching a tire” — were as pungent as Jacob Lawrence’s paintings of the black Diaspora from the South, and every bit as moving. Yes, she carried the big theme of black America’s struggle, but carried it lightly. With a black president about to call the White House home, she conjured the “dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce.”
After Obama’s ministerial eloquence, her reading, stressing the poem’s meter, may have seemed choppy to some. Not true. That’s how poetry works, distinguishes itself from prose, from preaching. In her rhythmic delivery, her images held. (Not that the TV cameramen had a clue. They blunted the poem’s impact by constantly taking the camera off Alexander and scanning the uninterested crowd.) I guess I wish Alexander didn’t veer off her dirt roads into an exposition of love in the end, where she seemed to spin her tires in sentimentality. But I heard her faint echo of Walt Whitman nonetheless.
Yet the poem’s end quickly fades and what remains are two images that capture the promise of the new president with indelible beauty. “A farmer considers the changing sky/ A teacher says, ‘Take out your pencils, begin.’”
Kevin Berger is the former features editor at Salon. More Kevin Berger.
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