Past blood, new hunger (and/or love beyond marital...)

This is the poem Elizabeth Alexander read for Obama's inauguration. It is an enormous, steaming pile of tripe. And sadly, it demonstrates an alarming number of elements common to what passes for popular/"populist" poetry in American these days. My comments inserted in italics below.

Praise song for the day.

Right off the bat, we know we have a winner. Not only does it evoke our current hodgepodge of neo-New Ager "praise" (albeit inflected slightly differently here, given the evangelical rhetorical overtones of Obama's speech), it also can't help itself from calling itself something other than a poem. A poem? Oh no, this is a praise song.

Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each others' eyes or not, about to speak or speaking. All about us is noise. All about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din, each one of our ancestors on our tongues. Someone is stitching up a hem, darning a hole in a uniform, patching a tire, repairing the things in need of repair.

One of my biggest pet peeves in poetry, and one that signals a much deeper problem, is the overuse of the "someone/something" trope. (i.e. "not love but something like it", "and we felt it there, something like the silence of a day", etc). Supposedly it means that these are honest poets, struggling with the fundamentally imprecision of language to grasp those things that are "more important" than names. Really it means that you're a fucking lazy hack.

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

Maybe my favorite part. I get that she is trying for a sort of pluralism, uniting poor, ramshackle musicians and their ubiquitous empty oil drums (which might now be a sign of wealth for the traces of precious crude within) with the rich, school cellists, not to mention the "urban" boombox. Or at least a version of postmodern global tribal mashup. But mostly, it sounds to me like an actual band that I'd like to hear. Called the John Brown Harper's Ferry (Blues) Explosion.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.

A farmer considers the changing sky; A teacher says, "Take out your pencils. Begin."

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

OK, so all is noise and bramble, that apparently tears holes in tires and uniforms. Yet we encounter each other in words. What then is this mysterious noise and bramble if not language? This is quite typical of the American cult of authenticity and suspicion of artifice, the idea that if we could just get past that noise of failed communication, all would be right. It achieves the remarkable unity of being attentive neither to the brute material facts of money and buildings and blood and history nor to the fact that there is nothing beyond miscommunication. Our misspeech is not just the best that we've got, it is the only thing that gives constancy to desires and hopes and all those other properly inauguration day themes.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark the will of someone and then others who said, "I need to see what's on the other side; I know there's something better down the road."

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

This, for me, is just pure cynicism, even if (or precisely because of being) well-intentioned. To speak of the names of the dead (without actually speaking their names, just the promise that one is doing "something" like that) who did this work, clearly coded as slave work, at the inauguration of someone who is nothing if not the best defense of global capitalism available today, is rather sick. I have no urge to deny the racial significance of Obama's election. But what this achieves here is a horrific narrative of progress, as if we needed those people to slave and toil and die in order for some small consolation now. This is a discontinuous history, one that cannot be retrofitted because of a slow increase in tolerability. It serves only to flatten and iron out, rather than elevating past blood into new fever and hunger.

They did not die for this day. The died because of imperialism. They died for no good reason whatsoever, other than the ceaseless cycling of capital.

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

Some live by "Love thy neighbor as thy self."

Others by first do no harm, or take no more than you need.

All well and good, but what we need is the cold assessment that few live this way. And saying that it's time for change is word, not deed (given that the Democratic party isn't exactly the union of theory and praxis we envisioned, this opposition stands here).

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.

Ah, so we need love beyond marital. There's a word for that. It's called "extramarital love." And while it might be "mighty" fun, last time we crossed that with a president, he got himself impeached.

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

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

I think I'll just answer this with an image, not a poem:

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