Ron Silliman’s son (and many others) wondered about the deadening “poetry voice” Elizabeth Alexander used to deliver the inaugural poem last week. A voice so unlike any we hear in everyday life, yet so familiar at poetry readings, that it acts as a sonic stand-in for poetry’s place in the wider culture: a bizarre, artificial, and distinctly prissy pursuit void of any information about the energies and hassles that shape our world.
The usual explanation for the “poetry voice” is that the poet wants to convey, as Ron puts it, “the thoughtfulness and urgency of the poem,” something the poem itself should do. The poets who use it would probably agree; they’d likely prefer their audience to read the poem in private, and the weird intonation I think is meant to mimic the way the poem might sound in the head, each word weighed and savored, read with the idea that it’s there to be re-read.
Up against Obama’s courtly cadences, and Lowery’s rhyming rhetoric—both pitch-perfect for the occasion, though a little limp on the page—the shortcomings of the “poetry voice” were especially revealing. Does poetry, as we practice it now, really belong at a public function? Or has it become the museum of a self that doesn’t exist quite anywhere else: interior, individual, uniquely creative, expressive of a sure and masterful relationship to language that’s unlike any we enjoy with the impersonal forces that determine most of our 21st-century lives?
Obama and Lowery succeeded in part because there wasn’t much unique or individual about their words. Obama’s speech leaned deftly on the genre of “presidential address”: sober, measured, rhetorically balanced, heavy on moral buzzwords (trust, sacrifice, service, generosity) and marked by a weirdly out-of-time syntax that dropped phrases like “borne of our ancestors” or “obscure in their labor” as if the 20th century never happened, or happened in Latin. Lowery, aside from quoting from James Weldon Johnson and Big Bill Broonzy, used rhyme, a seemingly rearguard poetic device that worked to connect his words with familiar literary forms from advertising jingles to protest chants.
Part of what accounts for Alexander’s delivery, I think, is that she didn’t have the same instantly recognizable conventions to draw from. Her poem is a typical postwar mélange of free verse in approximate pentameters, plain speech, “fine” writing (“widening pool of light,” “glittering edifices”), and vaguely postmodern meta-moments where the text weighs in on the conditions of its own creation (“we encounter each other in words,” etc.). Outside the MFA seminar room, who uses language like that? Her delivery had to carry not just the words themselves, but the missing context in which they should be read. Any poem read under inaugural conditions would have to address this somehow: the context for contemporary literary speech, no matter how demotic, isn’t very widely shared. It’s OK for Obama to let clouds gather and storms rage, or for Lowery to rhyme “yellow” with “mellow,” but in the language we frame as poetry, those same phrases would be dismissed as clichés. Alexander had to haul the whole frame for her poem up to the podium with her, using only her voice. I have trouble imagining any American poet succeeding at that. If we allowed poetry more clichés—let it be a little more uncreative—would it be less embarrassing in public? And could we lose that silly voice?
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