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December 20, 2008


my favorite Elizabeth Alexander poem:

by Elizabeth Alexander

I am lazy, the laziest
girl in the world. I sleep during
the day when I want to, 'til
my face is creased and swollen,
'til my lips are dry and hot. I
eat as I please: cookies and milk
after lunch, butter and sour cream
on my baked potato, foods that
slothful people eat, that turn
yellow and opaque beneath the skin.
Sometimes come dinnertime Sunday
I am still in my nightgown, the one
with the lace trim listing because
I have not mended it. Many days
I do not exercise, only
consider it, then rub my curdy
belly and lie down. Even
my poems are lazy. I use
syllabics instead of iambs,
prefer slant to the gong of full rhyme,
write briefly while others go
for pages. And yesterday,
for example, I did not work at all!
I got in my car and I drove
to factory outlet stores, purchased
stockings and panties and socks
with my father's money.

To think, in childhood I missed only
one day of school per year. I went
to ballet class four days a week
at four-forty-five and on
Saturdays, beginning always
with plie, ending with curtsy.
To think, I knew only industry,
the industry of my race
and of immigrants, the radio
tuned always to the station
that said, Line up your summer
job months in advance. Work hard
and do not shame your family,
who worked hard to give you what you have.
There is no sin but sloth. Burn
to a wick and keep moving.

I avoided sleep for years,
up at night replaying
evening news stories about
nearby jailbreaks, fat people
who ate fried chicken and woke up
dead. In sleep I am looking
for poems in the shape of open
V's of birds flying in formation,
or open arms saying, I forgive you, all.

"You can make snippets from any poet sound dumb."

That e.e. cummings knows nothing of punctuation!

In fact, lots of poets just don't know how to space or punctuate!

There are two typos that you will want to correct (if I'm correct that they are such):

cerulean blue instead
of indigo. My bother would
devour sugar-studded non-
pareils, pale taffy, damask plums.

That should be my 'brother', yes?

I am sick. I eat brown bread,
drink rancid brother. I miss good sun,

Should be rancid 'broth', I'm guessing.

Neonatology by Elizabeth Alexander


“funky, is

“leaky, is

“a soggy, bloody crotch, is

“sharp jets of breast milk shot straight across the room,

“is gaudy, mustard-colored poop, is

“postpartum tears that soak the baby’s lovely head.

Another passage:

“Shockingly vital, mammoth giblet,

“the second living thing to break free

“of my body in fifteen minutes.

“The midwife presents it on a platter.

“We do not eat, have no Tupperware

“to take it home and sanctify a tree.”

Since there's no open thread, can I just mention that Michelle Malkin remains -- of course! -- as big a nitwit as ever?

"drink rancid brother."

I guess it's not a reference to water-brothers. ;-)

I posted this one on a recent ethics thread. One of my favorites by Diane Ackerman.

Wittgenstein was wrong: when lovers kiss

they whistle into each other's mouth

a truth old and sayable as the sun,

for flesh is palace, aurora borealis,

and the world is all subtraction in the end.

The world is all subtraction in the end,

yet, in a small vaulted room at the azimuth

of desire, even our awkward numbers sum.

Love*s syllogism only love can test.

But who would quarrel with its sprawling proof?

The daftest logic brings such sweet unrest.

Love speaks in tongues, its natural idiom.

Tingling, your lips drift down the xylophone

of my ribs, and I close my eyes and chime.

Also, George Packer's comment on Alexander gave me pause:

"Judging from the work posted on her Web site, Alexander writes with a fine, angry irony, in vividly concrete images, but her poems have the qualities of most contemporary American poetry — a specificity that’s personal and unsuggestive, with moves toward the general that are self-consciously academic."

"You can make snippets from any poem sound dumb."

Yes, much like repeating a particular word over over again causes its sense and meaning to vanish. Except for the word "jabberwocky", oddly enough, which seems to gain strength as you say it quickly many times.

Steve Allen would read song lyrics slowly and make them sound banal as could be. He read the lyrics to "She Loves You" by the Beatles once and sure, what could be more banal than the way he drew out "yeah .... yeah .... yeah ..., but when the Beatles hit the mics with that sonic ecstasy and those harmonies, you walked away just knowing she loved you.

Not saying of course that "She Loves You" is poetry on a par with Alexander's, but you get the drift.

@ Nell:

Good catch - you're right about the two typos: they should read "brother" and "broth".

Oddly, the text hilzoy reprinted (as did Ta-Nehisi Coates) is the same as that from Elizabeth Alexander's own website; which has the typos. After a bit of Googling, I found a "correct" text of the Venus Hottentot HERE (via Smith College).

cummings made epic use of the following:

"i will not kiss your fucking flag"
"there is some shit i will not eat."

weapons-grade vernacular.

Hmm. I copied it from her site, as (I suspect) did Ta-Nehisi. I missed 'bother' (my inner copy editor probably inserted the R), but was puzzled by 'brother', but since it was on her site... In any case, I fixed them (I hope it's fixing, not mangling.)

John, try googling "peter sellers she loves you". You will enjoy it.

[There's also, if you follow links, a dramatic reading of a Hard Day's Night.]

When George Packer talks about 'a specificity that’s personal and unsuggestive', is it just me that wonders if what he means is 'she's a woman and black and she writes about that and it doesn't resonate with me as a white man'? Whereas when I read one of the other sections from Alexander's 'Neonatology':

“One day you’ll forget the baby,” Mother says,
“as if he were a pocketbook, a bag of groceries,
something you leave on a kitchen counter-top.
I left you once, put on my coat and hat,
remembered my pocketbook, the top and bottom locks,
got all the way to the elevator before I realized.

It only happens once.”

there is an immediate shock of recognition for me as a mother about some of my deepest fears (and maybe for some fathers as well?) Packer may have an argument in saying that any poetry at an inauguration is hard to do well, but I'm suspicious of him saying that this particular poet is the wrong one.

It's interesting comparing the comments here (or on TNC's blog) to the comments on the copy of this post at Washington Monthly. They're unusually hostile even by the standards of WaMo comments. What is it about poetry that does this?

My favorite poem, which seems particular apt for restless souls in the current times we live in:

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

— Wendell Berry

More Berry, breathtaking and powerful:

by Wendell Berry

When I was a boy here,
traveling the fields for pleasure,
the farms were worked with teams.
As late as then a teamster
was thought an accomplished man,
his art an essential discipline.
A boy learned it by delight
as he learned to use
his body, following the example
of men. The reins of a team
were put into my hands
when I thought the work was play.
And in the corrective gaze
of men now dead I learned
to flesh my will in power
great enough to kill me
should I let it turn.
I learned the other tongue
by which men spoke to beasts
—all its terms and tones.
And by the time I learned,
new ways had changed the time.
The tractors came. The horses
stood in the fields, keepsakes,
grew old, and died. Or were sold
as dogmeat. Our minds received
the revolution of engines, our will
stretched toward the numb endurance
of metal. And that old speech
by which we magnified
our flesh in other flesh
fell dead in our mouths.
The songs of the world died
in our ears as we went within
the uproar of the long syllable
of the motors. Our intent entered
the world as combustion.
Like our travels, our workdays
burned upon the world,
lifting its inwards up
in fire. Veiled in that power
our minds gave up the endless
cycle of growth and decay
and took the unreturning way,
the breathless distance of iron.

But that work, empowered by burning
the world’s body, showed us
finally the world’s limits
and our own. We had then
the life of a candle, no longer
the ever-returning song
among the grassblades and the leaves.

Did I never forget?
Or did I, after years,
remember? To hear that song
again, though brokenly
in the distances of memory,
is coming home. I came to
a farm, some of it unreachable
by machines, as some of the world
will always be. And so
I came to a team, a pair
of mares—sorrels, with white
tails and manes, beautiful!—
to keep my sloping fields.
Going behind them, the reins
I fight over their backs as they stepped
their long strides, revived
again on my tongue the cries
of dead men in the living
fields. Now every move
answers what is still.
This work of love rhymes
living and dead. A dance
is what this plodding is.
A song, whatever is said.

And something lighter:

How To Be a Poet
by Wendell Berry

(to remind myself)


Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill—more of each
than you have—inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.


Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.


Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.

Thanks, btfb.

"When George Packer talks about 'a specificity that’s personal and unsuggestive', is it just me that wonders if what he means is 'she's a woman and black and she writes about that and it doesn't resonate with me as a white man'?"

Perhaps so, but his statement comes close to implying that modern poetry in general doesn't resonate with him, and he's more or less claiming it doesn't resonate with most Americans.

[...] For many decades American poetry has been a private activity, written by few people and read by few people, lacking the language, rhythm, emotion, and thought that could move large numbers of people in large public settings. In response to the news about Obama’s inaugural, Derek Walcott, who is about the only poet I can think of who might have pulled it off, but wasn’t selected, said, “There have been great occasional poets—poets who write on occasion. Tennyson was one. I think Pope was another. Frost also.” It’s not an accident that Walcott couldn’t name a poet born after 1874.
I'd say that he's likely right that the majority of Americans don't read or appreciate poetry, as a rule, but I don't think that that's a sufficient reason for there not to be poetry at an inauguration.

And then he does go on to specifcally dis Elizabeth Alexander.

[...] A forty-six-year-old professor of African-American studies at Yale named Elizabeth Alexander has been chosen to write a poem for Obama’s swearing-in. She is a friend and former neighbor of Obama’s in Chicago, and her brother worked on the campaign and the transition. These alone seem like the kind of qualifications that entitle Caroline Kennedy to a Senate seat.


They are not poems that would read well before an audience of millions.

Obama’s Inauguration needs no heightening. It’ll be its own history, its own poetry.

Well, everyone's entitled to an opinion about aesthetics.

Huh. I got curious as to how old he was, as I'd always figured he was much older than me, but it turns out that he was born in 1960, making him two years younger than me.

"What is it about poetry that does this?"

A lot of people who don't get a given concept have an underlying suspicion that they're just being stupid after all, and get defensive, I suspect. Or maybe it's just that lots of people, if they don't get a concept, but are told that numbers of bright and sophisticated people do, feel defensive.

Lastly, specifically about poetry, to people who don't get it, it's incomprehensible, and therefore incomphrensible as to what other people get out of it.

And reading poetry is indeed different from reading prose; it requires different reading skills and a different approach than reading prose, just as does, say, reading comics.

Thanks, toad.

What a gift it would be able to write like Berry, where the words require attention, move your heart, stir your soul, and make you examine both yourself and the world you live in.

The best description of his poetry that I have read is that his words "breathe."

I think this Berry poem would make a good inaugural poem:

The Thought of Something Else
by Wendell Berry


A spring wind blowing
the smell of the ground
through the intersections of traffic,
the mind turns, seeks a new
nativity—another place,
simpler, less weighted
by what has already been.

Another place!
it’s enough to grieve me—
that old dream of going,
of becoming a better man
just by getting up and going
to a better place.


The mystery. The old
unaccountable unfolding.
The iron trees in the park
suddenly remember forests.
It becomes possible to think of going


—a place where thought
can take its shape
as quietly in the mind
as water in a pitcher,
or a man can be
safely without thought
—see the day begin
and lean back,
a simple wakefulness filling
the spaces among the leaves.

The Washington Post has a story on George. As does the NY Times.

[...] To prepare, she has delved into W. H. Auden, particularly his “Musée des Beaux Arts” (“About suffering they were never wrong/The Old Masters”), and the work of Gwendolyn Brooks, the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize, for poetry. Auden, she said, “asked very large questions about how we stand in history.” And Brooks has had a major influence on her work.

“She should have been the one, were she living, for this,” Ms. Alexander said of the honor bestowed by Mr. Obama. “The Bard of the South Side. She wrote from Obama’s neighborhood for so many years.” Here she recited Brooks’s familiar line: “Conduct your blooming in the noise and whip of the whirlwind.”

“Language like that,” Ms. Alexander said, “has eternal life.”

She's also about to be the chair of Yale's African-American department.

Lastly, specifically about poetry, to people who don't get it, it's incomprehensible, and therefore incomphrensible as to what other people get out of it.

I mostly don’t get it. I mean, I can appreciate it, some times. Other times, not so much. I appreciate good snark more. Thullen can gut you with a few words and you’ll be laughing all the while. That is good wordplay.

Poetry (to me) is something I did in high school to get laid.

With that said, I do appreciate cleek’s offerings.

A wonderful poem, breathtaking and particularly relevant in these times that I thought I would share with you:

I don't wanna walk around with you
I don't wanna walk around with you
I don't wanna walk around with you
So why you wanna walk around with me?
I don't wanna walk around with you.

In its coherence with the rest of the poets' work, its sly nod to the stooges, its AAABA rhyming, its negativity as a core concept.....brilliant.

Some people are unable to appreciate poetry, and that is sad, but discerning individuals will be able to appreciate the greatness of the referenced poem.

""drink rancid brother.""

Reminds me of the (at least anecdotally) misprint of 'soldier Aristotle' for 'solider Aristotle' in several editions of Yeats' Among School Children . . .

We could beat on the brat with a baseball bat if we're pushed sufficiently.

Oh yeah oh yeah oh yeah.

She's also about to be the chair of Yale's African-American department.

Wonder if that's part of the REAL reason....

(Also, part of the antipathy towards poetry probably also stems from the endemic anti-intellectualism in American society)

The Washington Post has a story on George. As does the NY Times.

On George Packer? Gary, your Post link is to an LA Times story about Obama's intelligence nominations. Could you repost the intended link?

"on George."

I meant "on Alexander."

Sorry, Nell.

Thanks, Gary. What a relief; I was afraid that somehow George Packer's pissy reaction had become a bigger story than Alexander or the return of the (so far Democratic) tradition of inaugural poetry.

I'd forgotten that the poet's father, Clifford Alexander, was one of the candidates for D.C. mayor in 1974, the first time those of us who lived there actually got to vote for our own city government. I canvassed for another candidate, who won.

I realize this is OT, but wanted to share it somewhere: It's why we love Petyon Manning -- and a kind of poetry unto itself.


Well, I failed to see the "advertisement" tag, but still a cool pic.

For sure I will look for more about Elizabeth Alexander. Did not know her or her work either.

Thanks, they were pretty good info. Congrats for this blog...very nice!!

Best regards for all...happy new year!!


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