Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Power of Presentation

What a day!

A historic, mesmerizing, glorious, moving, powerful, joyful, triumphant day. A day we will remember forever. A new day.

And, alas, a day in which there was more poetry on the street than on the podium.

Elizabeth Alexander’s “Praise Song for the Day” may actually be a better poem than most of us appreciated at the time. But when read aloud, a poem is only as good as its delivery... and Alexander’s delivery was, sadly, as wooden as her spoons on oil drums.

It's not my wish to be uncharitable, or cast any shadow on this wondrous day. And I do appreciate the pressure of the moment, and the fact that Obama is a pretty tough act to follow. But why, when in a position to transform millions of minds and hearts with the power of words, why resort to stilted, monotonous recitation? How can we expect our children to learn the joy, the value, the resonance of poetry if we can’t demonstrate it for them?

Elizabeth Alexander could take a page from Barack Obama’s public speaking manual:
  • Make eye contact – Sure, there are teleprompters, but the man learns his lines. He never looks down.
  • Let the points LAND – Give the key words and ideas the space, tone and emphasis to stand by themselves and breathe... BUT,
  • Move it along – Trust the audience’s intelligence, and their ability to follow. Most often, they're a beat ahead. And finally,
  • Let it FLOW – Stay open to the opportunity to get caught up in the imagery, the emotion, the message. PRAISE the song, the poem, the day.
Imagine if Obama himself said these words, maybe to Malia and Sasha as he tucks them into bed tonight…

“Praise song for the day.
Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each others' eyes or not, about to speak or speaking. All about us is noise. All about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din, each one of our ancestors on our tongues. Someone is stitching up a hem, darning a hole in a uniform, patching a tire, repairing the things in need of repair.
Someone is trying to make music somewhere with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.
A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky; A teacher says, "Take out your pencils. Begin."
We encounter each other in words, words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed; words to consider, reconsider.
We cross dirt roads and highways that mark the will of someone and then others who said, "I need to see what's on the other side; I know there's something better down the road."
We need to find a place where we are safe; We walk into that which we cannot yet see.
Say it plain, that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of.
Praise song for struggle; praise song for the day. Praise song for every hand-lettered sign; The figuring it out at kitchen tables.
Some live by "Love thy neighbor as thy self."
Others by first do no harm, or take no more than you need.
What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light. Love with no need to preempt grievance.
In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp -- praise song for walking forward in that light.”


Jon Berry said...

I think I'm the only one, but I loved the poem, in spite of the delivery. I thought the words themselves transcended the stilted delivery. Reading it for the first time (on your blog), I love it even more. Given the fact that she was going to have to answer simultaneously to both literary critics and the millions who never listen to or read poetry - I think she does a pretty good job of threading a difficult needle. And how great it is that the first event after Obama's oath and speech, was a poem.

Emma Walton Hamilton said...

Good points, Jon... especially the last one. I like to think of myself as a glass half-full kind of person (like you obviously are), but in tis case I guess I was just lamenting that it felt like a golden opportunity to capture the imaginations of America's youth that I'm not sure achieved that purpose. That said, I like the poem itself (which is why I printed it). And yes, better to have a poem read than no poem at all!

scb said...

Oh, Emma -- thank you for sharing the words of that poem! I confess that a few words into her delivery on that wonderful, historical day, I meandered over to my computer, and checked on my blogs until her "recitation" was over. Her delivery of the words did not inspire me to search out the text of the poem. Reading it now, to myself, I feel the power of the words, the images...

My mother recited poetry to me from the time I was very small, as her mother had done for her. I was taught to hear and transmit the music in words. Giving meaning to the words of a poem is like giving meaning to the lyrics of a song -- there is an ebb and flow, an emphasis and de-emphasis, that must be there, or the meaning is lost.

Thank you for bringing me the meaning that was in that poem (even though I'm somewhat late to the party, so to speak...)