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Tuesday, January 20, 2009 1:19 pm
A Chapbook Is Preferrable to Chapped Lips
Posted by: Keir Graff

Barack Obama: the forty-fourth president of the United States of America.

Elizabeth Alexander: the fourth poet to read at a U.S. president’s inauguration.

Graywolf Press will be releasing Alexander’s poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” as a chapbook on February 6. Which is good, because, in this humble scribe’s opinion, the poem works better on the page than on the stage–at least as Alexander read it. In the rich tradition of poets who write better than they read, Alexander’s halting. delivery. did. more. to. remind. us. that. we. were. listening. to. a. poem. than. to. instill. her. words. with. meaning.

That said, a speech like Obama’s is a tough act to follow.

Read Janet St. John’s review of Alexander’s American Sublime (2005).

Update: The Guardian reports that, with two weeks to go before publication, the $8 paperback is already Amazon’s bestselling poetry book (“Poem for Obama tops bestseller list,” by Alison Flood). The competition isn’t quite as fierce as in thrillers, but still, a noteworthy accomplishment.

In the Los Angeles Times, David Ulin doesn’t have much praise for “Praise Song“–I’m inclined to agree with his assessment (“Inaugural poem is less than praiseworthy“).

3 Responses to “A Chapbook Is Preferrable to Chapped Lips”
  1. wmr Says:

    I’m surprised at the criticism of Alexander’s poem. It seems to me that the plainness of the speech and the “everyday-ness” of the scenes she invokes is precisely the point: a hymn to lives of ordinary Americans.

  2. Keir Says:

    What can I say? We’re critics, so we have to find something to criticize.

    Alexander’s “everyday-ness” may strike just the right chord with many people (although video evidence suggests many ordinary Americans were underwhelmed)–but it reminds me of a lecture my advisor gave me in college. I was trying to write about a guy with a boring life, and my advisor told me I had made the writing boring, too (“mimetic fallacy,” she branded it). A great work of art can treat even mundane matters in inspiring fashion.

    But let me say once again that Alexander had a tough act to follow. Why on earth did they make her go AFTER Obama?

  3. Book Blog - Likely Stories, by Keir Graff - Booklist Online » Blog Archive » Elizabeth Alexander Tells Stephen Colbert about the Truth Says:

    [...] a humorous segment on a waterskiing squirrel, but–in case you missed Stephen Colbert telling Elizabeth Alexander that he literally has a mountain in his [...]


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