I have been reading some of the critics who have been up in arms about the poem Elizabeth Alexander read at the inauguration. One critic referred to it as “Histories worst inaugural poem.” Another characterized it as “awful” and earlier had fled the TV before having “to hear the prose banalities of Elizabeth Alexander.”
My first reaction on reading such remarks was one of surprise for I had applauded the poem following its presentation. And then, in my naive way, I had wondered what makes a good poem and more exactly what distinguishes a fine poem from an inferior one? Is there an objective way to answer that question, one that is widely, if not universally accepted by students of poetry?
Nowhere could I find quite why the critics had found Praise Song for the Day so lamentable. Nowhere could I find what exactly about the poem the critics found so objectionable. They simply didn’t like it and worse.
So much of the poetry that is published today is simply incomprehensible to me. I try to make sense of it, read it over several times, and, still, the majority of newly published poems are beyond my understanding. But I did understand Alexander’s poem and it did move me.
Have the critics forgotten about the reader? Does a poem exist independently of the reaction of the reader? Does not a reader’s enjoyment and appreciation of a work of poetry count for something?
And so today I read with some amusement a report on the Guardian website that the poem has been an extraordinarily popular publication. According to the Guardian’s report, the poem:
"…has not been received with universal acclaim, with the Los Angeles Times calling it “less than praiseworthy” and The New Republic describing it as “bureaucratic.” But
Alexander’s publisher Graywolf Press is rushing out an $8 paperback of the poem on 6 February nonetheless, with a 100,000 first print run. With over two weeks to go before publication, the book is already the bestselling poetry book on Amazon.com; Alexander’s new-found celebrity has also sent another of her titles, the 2005 Pulitzer prize finalist American Sublime, into the third spot."
Three cheers for readers. Even if the poem is not among the world’s finest, isn’t it of some consequence that a great many readers are taking pleasure in it and indeed that they are actually reading a work of poetry?
I am of the same mind as Ann Patchett who recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal:
“I’m all for reading bad books because I consider them to be a gateway drug. People who read back books now may or may not read better books in the future. People who read nothing now will read nothing in the future.”
If Alexander’s poetry encourages individuals (many of whom might rarely if ever read any poetry), to read more poetry and turns their interest to a broader range of poetry works perhaps we should think twice about criticizing so severely Praise Song for the Day.