Alternatives to reading Obama’s inaugural poem


There’s been a bit of discussion of the poem read at Barack Obama’s inauguration by Elizabeth Alexander. I wasn’t moved, and haven’t heard from anybody who was (although I have to guess Jack Layton liked her line about “the figuring it out at kitchen tables”). Still, I think it’s great that a poem was read at all.

As Alexander recited, other poems—much better ones, I think—whistled through my mind. Obama’s is a recovering smoker, right? I wonder if he knows “The Best Cigarette,” by Billy Collins, the former U.S. poet laureate. (There’s a great video version of it here.)

Or, more seriously, as a man with Kenyan heritage, who has famously pondered his mixed background, I think Obama would read “A Far Cry From Africa,” the St. Lucian Nobel-laureate Derek Walcott’s fierce meditation on being “divided at the vein,” with particular interest. (It’s the second poem here.)

Anyone who supposes this is all beside the point anyway, that poems and politics don’t mix, might want to try a short book (of prose) by another former U.S. poet laureate, Robert Pinsky, who wrote about it in “Democracy, Culture and the Voice of Poetry.”


Alternatives to reading Obama’s inaugural poem

  1. I think it’s worth noting, and I don’t think the post makes this clear, that this wasn’t just some poem Alexander chose to recite, it’s a poem she wrote specifically for the occasion. Whether one liked the poem or not, it still seems only fair to make it plain that Elizabeth Alexander wasn’t asked to recite a poem at the Presidential Inauguration, she was asked to compose a poem for the inauguration and then recite it.

  2. it’s not that poetry and politics don’t mix, it is just that an officially commissioned poem is bound to be flat, sententious and mediocre. It just gives poetry a bad name and should be discouraged for that reason alone.