Of Cabbages and Kings

The more I think about, the more there was one inarguable black mark on today's inauguration. Boiling, oily it oozed its way through the brilliant day. Yet as soon as its hideous existence was proclaimed the mar burbled away from the effulgence of the occasion, leaving only momentary confusion as the celebration continued without pause.

The moment was not the failure of the chief justice to remember the proper words to the oath of office, or the questionable content of the benediction. What I speak of is one of the worst poems I have heard since leaving college. I may color this discussion by saying so, but try as I might the more I review the poem the more failures I find. It is wholly unremarkable and unworthy of the honor it was granted today.

How foreboding do the words of the Fox News anchors now seem. As the orator approached the podium they noted that but a handful of inaugurations had featured a poet. By the time the poem had ended, the reason for this was painfully clear. Here is the offending script itself:

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.

This is not a quality poem. I saw many like it during college from my peers and from myself. It has all the marks of attempted poetry, but none of the discipline of good poetry. It is less a poem and more a speech with some small measure of eloquence and a few poetic moments. I shall explain in detail, subjective as such things are.

Let us begin with the first line. I will state the obvious thought of every proletariat and bourgeois out there, "What the heck?" The grammar of this sentence is nothing short of awkward. The inherent problem is that while the sentence follows such a standard structure as "give thanks for the day" the first two words are very poorly chosen. "Praise song" can be read either as a noun adjunct or a verb-noun pair, with the latter falling in line with the aforementioned grammer structure. However, it is the former that will be first assumed by the majority of American listeners, particularly those of a protestant background. This confusion is an interesting grammatical exercise, but starts the poem off by tripping up anyone reading or especially listening.

Moving on, we come across a sentence that is bland and uninteresting until its end. The first, second, and third sections are almost entirely mundane save for "or not". One can argue that this might be intentional given the subject matter, which is the mundane itself. The following sentence is mildly less plain, but is repeated twice before we finally arrive at something one might truly find interesting. Here, finally at "bramble, thorn and din" we have poetry, imagery that leaps to mind. Yet immediately the concision, the picture begins to collapse again. "Each one of" is what my poetry professor would have called "excessive language". The image here is not enhanced by these words, but delayed.

The final sentence of the second paragraph begins a trend I find unfortunate. One of the basic concepts drilled into me by professors and teachers alike was the importance of avoiding "junk" words, that is words that are vague and undescriptive. "Things", "someone", "something", "stuff" and many other words offer no image, no palpable product. They simple are, taking up space and muddying the waters. These are not forbidden words, they have their place, but it is tempting to place them where they do not belong. Here we begin with "someone", though we quickly move into more precise languish, and end with "the things in need of repair". Despite the attempt to elicit mending, "things" squarely hinders the attempt to evoke a clear thought.

This leads into a terribly vague sentence fragment, "Someone is trying to make music somewhere..." There are a million words one could replace "someone" with, and "somewhere" is completely unnecessary, though if it felt right there are certainly a thousand locations one could describe in three words or less. The second half of the sentence could have been interesting, but the stage has been set as this vague nullity, a non-entity with attributes thrown into the void. The listener or reader is working against the poet to form images, which is the antithesis of poetry.

We have a brief reprieve of three sentences that are actually descriptive. They might have made decent prose, but we have just come from a fairly vague place, one filled with attempts at similar sentences. The constant repetition of the someone does something structure dilutes their impact.

Following this we recede. This is now the third time in one poem that we have encountered "someone". In fact, this sentence brings the grand total of junk words up to five (six if you count the vagueness of "others" in this context) and we're only halfway done. I remember my professor once refused a similar effort of mine, immediately handing it back to me. I had until he finished collecting my peers' efforts to replace the offending words.

This next sentence, employing a semi-colon, is not bad, but it highlights the extremely simplistic sentence structure the author employs. We have now repeated the same subject four times consecutively. We have repeated a subject, verb phrase, object structure nine times. Quite simply, this poem is repetitive.

Repetition is broken by this paragraph and it was perfect until the author couldn't stop at "edifices". "They would then" is an awkward segway into an even more awkward phrase. This isn't a Churchill moment; we don't need to radically alter the sentence structure to rid ourselves of "of".

And at last, we have come full circle. By the time the author has repeated "praise song" for the third time one might, at last, be able to clear the hurdle it throws down. Of course, then it beans you with "The figuring it out at kitchen tables". Figuring what out, the sign? *bonk*

The next two sentences are somehow meant to bridge the confusion we just crossed and lead into the an exposition on love. The author has the transition backwards. She starts with a well known statement on love, and moves away from the word in the next sentence before grabbing us by the collar and pulling us back to it.

And here, at last, we have something resembling poetry. These last sentences, up until everything is once again crushed under the confusing grammar of "praise song" we have a glimpse of the art we so love. I say a glimpse and "something resembling" because up until this point we've been enjoying a speech. Looking over this a hundred times, reading it to write this critique, I can't help but realize that this isn't a poem spoken publicly but public speaking with poetic tendencies. If you pulled me off the street and asked me to speak eloquently I might, if flustered, orate in this fashion.

"Praise song for walking forward in that light." Here at the end I can't help but wonder, what the heck did song ever do to warrant such praise?

I'm being very harsh, ridiculously so. I have no authority by which I make these statements, and I'm certain the author is determined enough that they would easily shrug off my criticism as plebeian. In my haste to write this I certainly didn't go into such detail as I could have. Yet, gracious though I may attempt to be toward the work I can not help but think of how talentless it seems. This wasn't an effort worthy of the honor of the day, it was at best an entry-level college homework assignment. It would not get full marks.

I'm certain that someone can argue over the minutiae that I went into, but I don't think any amount of nitpicking will be able to salvage this wreck. Perhaps I am an elitist.

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