23 January 2009

Saying Amen! -- Inaugural comments

Yes I know a few days late but I'm one finger short and have a Virus. Two things re the inauguration that are not about Obama (who, I'm thrilled to see, is getting down to business). One, that poem. Two, the stupid BBC.

I'll start with the Beeb. Commentators, are you ignorant asses? Why did you go all silent and reverent for Aretha Franklin and all the prayers, yet start discussing bugger-all when Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman, two contemporary gods of classical music, began to perform? You kept it up for at least 2 minutes. It was like someone had to tell you two, or three, at last, to the f* shut up! The link above has the whole performance sans BBC idiots voicing over. 

PS I did not know Anthony McGill before but as someone who's about to get a seriously good, overhauled flea market clarinet (and hasn't played for at least 5 years), I am in considerable awe of his tone. 

Now, the poem.

Composing an inaugural poem has got to be right up there with the Queen's Birthday composition for all-time pressure and absolute lack of poetic-ness.  You want it to be good. You want it to say something. You've got to do it in front of an audience of millions, all of whom are on your side but have sky-high expectations. This is a recipe for poetic disaster. 

I had flash-backs to Maya Angelou doing Bill Clinton's (first, I think) inauguration, going on about a rock, and a root, and the earth, and a rock, and then another rock.... and on and on.

Apparently the "praise song" is a widely-used African poetic form (got this via Carol Rumens in the Guardian Book Blog). I didn't know that. When you look at even the basic example given in the link, you can see that it has potential. I wish Elizabeth Alexander's poem had lived up to that potential.  I wish I had gotten at least one or two tingles down the old spine. Some humour might have come in handy.

I will not go so far as to say that it might have made more use of rhyme, but you saw (did you not?)  the effect of Rev Joseph Lowery's benediction ... To me, that benediction contained many moments of poetry:

God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, thou, who has brought us thus far along the way, thou, who has by thy might led us into the light, keep us forever in the path we pray, lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee, lest our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee.

(the opening - gorgeous -- reminiscent of 'If I forget thee, o Jersusalem", Psalm 137:5)


Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back, when brown can stick around ... when yellow will be mellow ... when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right. That all those who do justice and love mercy say Amen.
(the ending)

Did you hear everybody say "Amen"? We were saying it! We were saying it, and we were at home, watching on the BBC !


  1. You're absolutely right about the poetry. "God of our weary years. . ." is from James Weldon Johnson's "Lift Every Voice and Sing." The entire text can be found at http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15588. Set to music by the poet's brother, the song is now known as “The African American National Hymn.” Unfortunately, unless it's pitched just right, I find the song is even harder to sing than "The Star-Spangled Banner."

  2. Thanks Jan, I had no idea and didn't think to google the text!