Exiled from Main Street XXVIII: Dispatch from Outside
“The main reason, really, I’m doing this press is that I feel that it’s important to take this moment on behalf of the art. And to say, guess what? We can have this national conversation about poetry and it won’t hurt a bit.”
--Elizabeth Alexander, interviewed by Dave Rosenthal of the Baltimore Sun
This time I am going to talk about something of very little concern.
I went to an all-boy Catholic High School on the West Side of Cincinnati, where approximately 94.2% of our city’s police force hails from. It was, as you can probably imagine, a relatively straight laced, no-nonsense kind of place, one with the usual uniform: collared shirt tucked in, dress slacks, tie, no gym shoes unless you were adept at forging a note from your parents, which of course I was. I got on fine there, despite my habit of wearing purple lipstick and teasing and spraying my hair with something that assuredly destroyed the very sky it aspired to.
Anyway, I remember it well. I had failed a test so miserably, had so unmistakably not studied, that the teacher Mr. Kreimer knew something was up. I explained that some tragedy or another had thrown me off, so he good-naturedly allowed me to take it again. Now Mr. Kreimer was a caring, understanding man, one that even took in troubled teenagers with substance abuse issues—without, to my knowledge, molesting any of them. Yet, this day while I was sitting there in an empty, adjacent room after finishing the test, he was well aware he had done me a good turn and thus felt at ease enough to be frank. Standing above me, he screwed up his face and pinched my shirt that in all actuality was a gown, and said, “Now what is this? What are you trying to get done with this?”
I knew already that I would be hard-pressed to explain to any adult the serious intricacies of The Cure, so I said nothing.
“We both know, Mark,” he continued, “that you are a smart, dynamic young man. But I’ve watched as plenty of your type wasted what they had to offer.” Then his question: “Don’t you realize how much more you can accomplish from the inside?”
I do not consider myself a political person.
The other day I woke up the same time as any other day: noon. I grabbed my two boys, my parrotlets Ernie and Louie, and ventured downstairs. Once in the TV room, where their food and water is, I noticed the DVR was recording. Somewhat groggy still, I wondered what the hell my girlfriend was recording now, fearing that her scheduled recordings of Run’s House and Real Housewives of Atlanta were getting out of hand again.
I turned on the TV and was immediately reminded that it was Inauguration Day.
I took a seat, then, and listened to our freshly minted President orate, amazed by the scene surrounding the Mall. I was reminded of the swath King, among many others, had cut, and the power and possibility of the spoken word. I was given pause when I was asked to consider giving up some of my hours at work to help someone else whose hours were being cut. I wondered how I could do that.
I was also thrilled to hear my religious denomination—non-believer— included in this particular Address.
When our new President finished, I smiled.
Like the many others who fled the Mall then, I went into the next room to fill my boys’ bowls. I was standing by the refrigerator when, inexplicably, I started to weep. I was overwhelmed by, not just the long shadow of slavery and inequality and cruelty to men and women, which was vast, but also by an almost alien pride. Yes, for the first time in a long, long time, for the first time ever maybe, I was just so goddamn proud of my country. And filled with something approaching optimism.
I stood in the open refrigerator holding a bottle of mineral water in my hand, thinking: OK, ladies and gentlemen, we got a good thing going here, let’s not fuck this up....
First, I’d like to express my gratitude to President Obama—has anyone else noticed how often the man is called Mr. Obama instead of President by the press?—Yes, I’d like to express my gratitude to the President for including an Inaugural Poem in the day’s festivities, only the third to deem it fitting. Furthermore, I’d like to thank the chosen poet, Elizabeth Alexander, for finally blowing us off the National Stage once and for all. Or at least until that distant future wherein we elect out first transgendered President.
To be sure, the practice will continue to make stereotypical cameos on illustrious shows such as Jerry Springer and the occasional game show, but everyone that can read recognizes that is not poetry, which is to say I guess not most of us.
I was aghast as soon as she started. What the hell. is she. doing. reading. or not. reading. like that? The recitation of her poem “Praise Song for the Day” was proffered as if she was making it up on the spot, as if freestyling in a straightjacket. She reminded me of a pugilist who had been brutally knocked out, only to be rushed into a post-match interview.
“Praise song for struggle, praise song of the day....” Well, I wish I could.
Instead, it was everything those whom have little interest in the pursuit (read the general populace) find unappetizing about it: There was no fire, no soul. No chance or gamble. There was absolutely nothing stirring about it. It was common on an uncommon day. An uncommon day born of necessity, we should remember, as an antidote for some of the things that ail us: Slavery. Lynchings. People who should have been lynched but weren’t (Goodbye George, See you later Dick). Wars. Torture. Disgrace. Katrina. The economy. For such a monumental occasion, it seemed unbearably white. The poem, or at least its elocution, was condescending, listless, anachronistic.... The only thing I can think to equate it to is if Springsteen had showed up to the Super Bowl halftime show with a ukulele instead of an electric guitar.
“Say it plain,” the Poet reminds herself, halfway through the poem! Some of it was clichéd: “Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself....” This when the table where “the figuring-it-out” occurs needed to be overturned!
“What if the mightiest word is love?” she asks.
Well, then I guess we could all go back to things being normal again. Really, have I been kicking myself in the rear all these years for not getting an Ivy League education because I refused to tuck in my blouse?
Her words were like wet laundry on an outdoors clothesline.
I listened, with tattered flag in hand, embarrassed for my noble cousin. Reminded all the while of the bleach that had sanitized and snuffed out my enthusiasm for my once chosen and practiced vocation.
I mean, poetry. Tell me: is there a dirtier word? Is there a quicker way to take the air out of a room? Just listen to how some say the word, some who mine it even: Po-et-try. Po-et-try. Now I’m going to read you my po-em. It’s spoken preciously, yet sounds like someone breaking wind. The word’s (mis) pronunciation instilled in us the same way a given name that smacks of the rural backwoods inevitably is stretched out with syllables that aren’t there. This from years of being misused and maligned, a scenario that was perpetuated even on this otherwise jubilant day.
Would that Obama had chosen me instead, assuming he was truly visionary and could pick one unknown even to himself, one at present who averages a poem a year, in a good year. “This is the poem that never mattered because it couldn’t speak well,” I would have uttered with conviction, élan and the prerequisite verve to resuscitate a blue face. “‘This is the poem your mother always warned you about, knowing you wouldn’t have noticed it otherwise,’” I would have said.
Alas, ‘twas not to be.
I suppose one could say I am showing poor form, as the above may be viewed as merely a personal attack on Elizabeth Alexander. My response might be to suggest that said attack was provoked, was undertaken in defense of something defenseless. Furthermore, I’m tempted to make the claim that a poem such as “Praise Song” was fashioned out of an instinct to safely parley a more secure career at the expense of the genre’s long-term health. Why, even now the press at Graywolf is churning out 100,000 copies of the poem, a monstrous first edition.
Yet, the more familiar I become with Elizabeth Alexander, the more kind things I can think to say about her. For one, her credentials are stellar. She was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize and, as it says on her website, “She chairs the Department African American Studies at Yale University [Sic].”
What’s more, the poem may not be all that bad. Some people enjoyed its simple commonality. After all, what is wrong with air-drying one’s clothes?
True, if I would had come across the poem as simply a written document, I probably would have found it passable and then moved onto the next one, my somnambulant state still intact. There are some solid lines: “We walk into that which we cannot see” indeed. Fact is I have no idea why Elizabeth Alexander tried to approximate the voice of CP3O on Inauguration Day, I only wish she hadn’t. Maybe it was the millions of people... walking away? In any event, I know from trying that I can make her poem hum at times.
Meanwhile, the defense would also like to introduce the fact that the three previous Inaugural poems—by Robert Frost (for JFK), Maya Angelou and Miller Williams (both for Clinton)—are widely thought to be lacking. Indeed, some reputable folks believe the occasional poem to be the most difficult type to write. (For further proof, see the poems that NPR commissioned for the occasion, which boasted a strong lineup but netted an even greater amount of bunk).
Finally, I thought Elizabeth Alexander was charming, if a bit overly earnest, during her appearance on The Colbert Report. And quotes such as “Being an artist is not about being liked. That’s not why you do it. That’s not why I do it,” could have been lifted wholesale from yours truly if we lived in an alternate world where professors from Yale actually read me.
But I’m still in that classroom with my clown make-up on, thinking about the question good ol’ Mr. Kreimer just posed: “Don’t you realize how much more you can accomplish from the inside?” Or, as the New Republic’s Adam Kirsch wrote about Elizabeth Alexander’s poetry: “Her verse is not public but bureaucratic—that is to say, spoken by no one and addressed to no one.... Like him [President Obama], too, she has challenged the establishment by joining it, rather than fighting it... Alexander has reminded us of what Angelou’s, William’s, and even Robert Frost’s inauguration poems already proved: that the poet’s place is not on the platform but in the crowd, that she should speak not for the people but to them.”
Which leads me to think about other things like stimulus packages and bipartisanship. About how “we” won, fairly and finally. About how this is supposed to be our time, a time in which to make sense of, and to right, so very many things that went wrong. And, as such, I see no place for the idea of bipartisanship, as a diluted vision only flirts with blindness. They had their chance. They now mill about the foyer with their hats in their hands, undaunted and defiant. This while someone needs to show them the door, and then lock it behind them.
In the meantime, you know where to find me.