Wise Women Friday: Elizabeth Alexander

Words of wisdom from poet Elizabeth Alexander:

All about us is noise.  All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each 
one of our ancestors on our tongues.  

What you don't know about me is that I wasn't an English major.  And do you know why?  Poetry.  I'm terrified of poetry.  Its abstract metaphors and similes that I can barely wrap my poor brain around scare me.  Every week I try reading the poems in the New Yorker and, almost always, I stop by the fourth line.  I can't figure out what the heck they're talking about.  

So, even though the LA Times called Alexander's inaugural poem "prosaic," I like it.  I like it because I get it.  It is not overly complex.  It is not super deep.  It is a poem for all Americans, the English majors and the high school drop outs.  We are all the audience.  And that's the point.  

And how can you not love that line about ancestors on our tongues?  Don't you feel that way sometimes?  Don't you hear your mother or your grandmother walking right off of your tongue?  And who else is there?  Who is there that you've never met, whose name you never knew, but who is lying in wait on your tongue still making her mark on the world through you, through your tongue?   


Petrea said...

Yes yes yes. Sometimes I think they're even in my brain, using my cells do their thinking.

Is "prosaic" an insult? What's wrong with writing a poem people can understand? I believe that was deliberate and I'm glad she did it.

I majored in Rhetoric with a concentration in poetry. (Something you didn't know about me.) I can't understand most poets either, and it's why poetry is dying (so they say). Too many poets are deliberately obscure. It's downright rude.

Margaret said...

Petrea: Well, since I am terrified of poetry, I can't help thinking that you are totally brilliant because you had a CONCENTRARTION in poetry. Wow. Half of me has always thought that some poets are obscure on purpose, but as a writer I can't think why you would want to alienate your audience, as opposed to drawing them in. Since that makes no sense the other half of me just figures that my mind is not built for poetry. But I think you're right. And it is rude. Rude, rude, rude.

altadenahiker said...

Oh, party pooper hiker here. I'm going to disagree, but not with everything. I admire an educated palate. (obscurity for obscurity's sake does not count here, of course.)I think we're made better for reaching to understand something that isn't immediately (or even eventually) apparent.

The romantic poets were in rebellion against what they considered the lofty poetry of the day. And some of their stuff is beautiful, but some is crap. "Hail to thee, blithe spirit," springs to mind.

I appreciate the art that requires an education to understand. Otherwise, I'd never listen to anything other than Bach. I'd actually look at those horrible Kincaide pictures. I'd think there is no appreciable difference between my photo of a flower, and a really good one (ok, I'm coming slowly to that, but I'm a willing pupil).

So, that's all I have to say. (and my word is trowmzt, and if you don't get that, well, I just don't know...)

Margaret said...

Oh, dear party pooper, I am sure you are right, which is why the other half of me does think it's not the poetry -- it's me. And since now that you are saying all those smart things about poetry I, of course, must think that you are one of those brilliant poetry people too. I stand humbled and in awe.

altadenahiker said...

Stop, stop, stop. I didn't state that well. Let me put it in terms of wine: I can't tell the difference between a $100 bottle and a $1,000 bottle. I once had that opportunity, and failed. But I do believe those who could appreciate the difference were able to taste a little more of heaven than I. So, there's more to learn, and how lovely is that?
(And I so liked the line you quoted.)

Cafe Observer said...

That's a nice thought: if our "ancestors" were just left on our tongues.

Petrea said...

The Emperor of Ice-Cream

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month's newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Take from the dresser of deal
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Wallace Stevens is one of my favorites. He was an insurance salesman. John and I were talking about The Emperor of Ice Cream last night. It's a poem that could seem inaccessible at first look, but if you want to know about it you can look up things like "fan-tails" and "dresser of deal." Some poems are fun to study. This one is. We tore it apart and put it back together again. It doesn't hurt that John is incredibly smart, interested in poetry and more educated about it than I am.

I'm reminded of when you posted Dover Beach on Havisham's blog recently, Hiker. That's another favorite.

Margaret said...

AH: You are right. It is always good when there is more to learn. If I have one core principle in life that is probably it.

CO: You're right too. If only they'd stay on our tongues. I've got my mom's hands, my grandpa's cowlick and nose, my dad's forehead. There's a me in here somewhere, I swear.

Petrea: I like ice cream, and the idea of an emperor of ice cream is very appealing to me. But you're right, that one will take me some work to really understand. I'm telling you: I think my brain just works better with the concrete. I'm so glad you posted it however. And it has a great cadence, which is always fun.

Susan C said...

I love some poems, hate others.

The ones I love, I go back and read over and over again like a child and a favorite bedtime story.

I don't know that I would do that with Alexander's poem. I was a tad disappointed.

And all my life others, from high school jocks to handy men and youth pastors, have asked me to read their poetry. None of it has been good. What to say? "You have so much passion and so much to say. I'm glad that poetry gives you an outlet for that."

Petrea said...

hahahaha Susan!

I wrote a lot of poetry in college and kidded myself that it was good. I think it was good for a college kid. I always got A's but suspected my professor had ulterior motives. Finally I wrote a deliberately bad poem, got an A and learned the truth.

So I had my major, finished school and entered the real world with a real education. I found better teachers after college.

altadenahiker said...

Interesting chat. I love WS, and I love that he actually loved his job as insurance lawyer? Exec? Salesman? Whatever. He believed it grounded him. Or so we were told.

I don't understand all or even part. Or John Ashbery. Hell, Emily Dickinson can stump me.

Would be interesting if we all looked at a recent poem by a young poet and had a whack at it.

altadenahiker said...

Wait, wait, I've got a post title: Hail to thee, blithe spirit, hog-butcher to the world.

pasadenapio said...

When she recited the poem, it was the one moment during the inaugural when my tears began to flow. The lovely simplicity of the piece, reminding us of our commonality, moved me deeply.

Susan C said...

The Emperor of Ice Cream is one of my faves too. I love all the beat poets.

Ann, that's the best recommendation for Alexander's work - that you were moved to tears.

Palm Axis said...

"There is a loneliness in this world so great that you can see it in the slow movement of the hands of a clock"
It's from "Crunch" by Bukowski, and I never grow tired of it.
When it comes to contemporary poetry I don't expect to understand it. I look for that connection that has resonance for me. I have great admiration for people who take chances with words. It doesn't scare me, it excites me.
Trivia time: the most successful artist to graduate from Art Center is Robert Kincaide.

wordpress is giving me grief right now so

Margaret said...

PA: I love what you say, and the Bukowski quote is wonderful. Resonance. Finding resonance. That's a great way to put it.

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