Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized — Graham Harman

Monday, January 26, 2009

Dig those brambles

I wasn't too keen on the Inaugural poem by Elizabeth Alexander. But what a horrible burden. First you have to do a public poem, in an age where most people haven't even read a poem, let alone a public one. Then you have to do it in front of millions of people. Then you have to compete with Arethra Franklin and Joseph E. Lowery. Arethra's one word “Protect” versus your hundreds—there's already no contest, is there? Oh yeah, and it's for the first African-American President in history, and everyone is tuned in. (What a beautiful day for the world, by the way.)

So I think Alexander went in the right direction—contemplation rather than action, understatement not overstatement, metonymy not metaphor. (Metonymy being evoking things by their properties or by their causes, a rather more subtle trope than the well known metaphorical leap from one domain to another.) You can't compete, so go sideways. In fact, given the way the poem went for something contemplative and metonymic, the door was open for something like ambient or ecological poetics.

But if you're going to do metonymy, you have to really really do it. This means you have to dive into one small detail and just let it kind of suggest and evoke others. The brambles in the second stanza (surely a punning reference to Obama's beloved Blackberry) would have been a good way to go: shades of Whitman's lilacs (on the occasion of Lincoln's death).

Instead we got a shoe box full of less than vivid items selected for reasons that were hard to glean (PC name-checking?—I wasn't sure).

Against the pundits who didn't like it because it wasn't loud enough, I guess I'd argue that it wasn't quiet enough. Against those who said it was too intellectual, I'd like to stick up for the general introspective and intellectual direction, and say Alexander should've gone further—further into the mind...

The master of this mode is of course my man Wordsworth—viz. “The Thorn.” I guess if you're looking for a contemporary master you could do worse than Amiri Baraka, whose “Something in the Way of Things” (set to music brilliantly by The Roots on their album Phrenology) is a genius indictment of contemporary capitalism and ideology—oops, now I remember why Barack didn't choose him...

But Alexander could have somehow morphed those brambles into the vast ocean of people in front of her, and ended in a democratic-sublime place. Paging Percy Bysshe Shelley...

It's so easy to criticize isn't it?

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