Greetings! I just want to say how very thrilled I was that Art -- poetry and music -- was prominently featured in President Obama's inauguration ceremony. The quartet -- Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Anthony McGill, and Gabriela Montero -- gave us a gorgeous rendition (specially arranged for them by John Williams) of "Air and Simple Gifts". (Did anyone else recognize its theme as the borrowed melody of a children's song? "It's a gift to be simple, it's a gift to be kind . . . ") Elizabeth Alexander read "Praise Song for the Day," a poem written for the occasion -- an intense, but quiet meditation on the everyday work that brought us to this very special day and the spirit in which the hard, ongoing work ahead of us should be performed.
I've been interested in the reactions to these performances and what they suggest about American culture's concept of the relationship between art and authenticity. From what I gather, reading around the Internet and talking with people in my circles, people either loved Alexander's poem or decidedly disliked it -- not much middle ground. Some of that can be chalked up simply to taste. But I wonder whether some people who were disappointed, were disappointed not so much in the poem as in Alexander's reading of it. I've known Elizabeth Alexander for years and have attended several of her readings during that time. What we saw on Tuesday is more or less her reading style: unadorned, slow and distinct enough for readers to take it in, drawing attention via pauses to the nuances of her phrasing and the line breaks her audience can't see, allowing the words to do their work. I think her fans -- those who've heard her read before -- expected that reading style and were able to concentrate on the content of the poem. But the large numbers of inauguration attendees and viewers who were not familiar with her work may well have been expecting a reading along the lines of Maya Angelou's style: majestic, dramatized. Robert Frost didn't read like Angelou -- yet his inaugural performance (as difficult as it was for him) has not drawn the sort of criticism I've seen of Alexander's. How many people (of whatever race) were let down because they had expectations of a kind of "black" performance style that would be particularly inspiring to them -- whether that "black" style is like Angelou's, like Sonia Sanchez's, like Patricia Smith's, or like Staceyann Chin's?
I have no way of answering that question. But it is a question for me -- a question concerning racial authenticity in relation to art, among other things. I should mention that the examples of black (women's) performance styles I offered above are all styles that I admire and that have been highly effective at creating strong, devoted audiences for these poets' work.
On a similar note, I discovered today that the NYTimes reported on the fact that the quartet's musical performance was pre-recorded, as a weather-related precaution, and that what we saw/heard at the inauguration was the taped performance, with the musicians playing along, note-for-note, with the recording. The Times article included this comment: "Performing along to recordings of oneself is a venerable practice, and it is usually accompanied by a whiff of critical disapproval." It talks about performers -- from Milli Vanilli to Luciano Pavarotti -- being "caught" in the act of . . . well, acting. There is an important distinction to be made, of course, between lip synching to a recording of one's own voice and lip synching to the voice of someone else, someone who actually has the talent! The inaugural performance wasn't the latter case. Yet the fact that this was news, to the NYTimes, no less, suggests that we as a culture -- rather than being pleased to have heard such moving music played flawlessly and without any unfortunate temperature-related incident on such an occasion -- feel instead that we have been slightly cheated or defrauded by such efforts to make the event go smoothly. Again, this strikes me as an issue of authenticity -- a quixotic desire for art to be real, to embody something real, however we may define real in a given context.
What do you think?
I would like to close this entry by offering (below) the text -- properly formatted -- of Praise Song for the Day. Alexander's poem is a highly crafted, deeply historical, yet very available work of art, as she intended it to be. It bears reading, and re- and re- and re-reading. It is her gift to President Obama and to the nation on a very special occasion. It is ours, now, to read aloud in whatever style we like.
Praise Song for the Day
Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other's
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.
Someone is trying to make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.
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.
We cross dirt roads and highways that mark
the will of some one 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.
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 thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. 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 pre-empt grievance.
In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,
praise song for walking forward in that light.