Most Read... Rebecca WattsThe Cult of the Noble Amateur
(PN Review 239)
John McAuliffeBill Manhire in Conversation with John McAuliffe
(PN Review 259)
Eavan BolandA Lyric Voice at Bay
(PN Review 121)
Patricia CraigVal Warner: A Reminiscence
(PN Review 259)
Vahni CapildeoOn Judging Prizes, & Reading More than Six Really Good Books
(PN Review 237)
Tim Parksin conversation with Natalia Ginzburg
(PN Review 49)
Next Issue Gwyneth Lewis ‘Spiderings’ Ian Thomson ‘Fires were started: Tallinn, 1944’ Adrian May ‘Traditionalism and Tradition’ Judith Herzberg ‘Poems’ translated by Margitt Helbert Horatio Morpurgo ‘What is a Book?’
Poems Articles Interviews Reports Reviews Contributors
PN Review 276
PN Review Substack

This item is taken from PN Review 186, Volume 35 Number 4, March - April 2009.

‘Idea Stores’, ‘Discovery Centres’: that’s how some local authorities in the United Kingdom intend to rebrand public libraries. The word ‘library’ is compromised by liber, by the tradition of quiet spaces and shelves full of books. Librarians are urged to maintain stocks in accordance with local demand, like high-street shops, to devote more and more space to computers, to keep up with the times. These are times when investment in the sector is sparse.

The rustication of ‘library’ is advancing in the United States too. At Rutgers University the School of Communication, Information and Library Studies decided, after a vote of 30-10, to change its name to the School of Communication and Information (Library Journal, 10 February 2009). Though over a quarter of the students in the School are pursuing Masters in Library and Information Science, the change of name provides a litany of buzz words: ‘a cohesive identity to the diverse faculty and student groups who make up our community’. Yes, ‘It’s a subtraction of words, but I’d argue it’s a broadening of the concepts that tie us all together,’ Dean Jorge Reina Schement declared. Dropping the pesky word will ‘enhance our interactions with corporate and individual donors’.

Rutgers’ is not the first American school to travel along this road. Among the justifications the Dean offered was one he later described as a ‘typo’. A large typo: he said the New Jersey Library Association had been consulted and implied it had approved. The President of the Association commented, ‘For a communication school, there was very poor communication.’ Still, one must appeal always to the corporate and individual donor. If money wants to call a rose an artichoke, oblige it.

‘What if the mightiest word is love?’

Poor communication of another sort marked the inauguration of President Obama. Never before has poetry had a chance to rise like a lion after slumber and address so large and well-disposed a world audience. Its credit was sadly unenhanced when Elizabeth Alexander, Professor of African American Studies at Yale University, of which both Presidents Bush and President Taft are alumni, read her ‘Praise Song for the Day: A Poem for Barack Obama’s Presidential Inauguration’. The poem is not ‘wholly inept’, ‘horrible’ or ‘trivial’, as critics were quick to declare. But it does not roar; it is not good, it chooses to take no risks. It is a token of a poem, not the poem the occasion called for.

Considering Professor Alexander’s discipline, its history, its energies, its traditions of orality, its insistent vernacularity, it is less the art of poetry than the nature and power of her literary constituency that she disappoints with her toneless ‘Song’.

Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other’s
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

Business. How well she catches the human emptiness of it: people passing, eyes meeting - eyes not meeting; talking - or not talking. All human life is there.

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

The word ‘bramble’ is promising, paired with ‘noise’, but the parallel coupling of ‘thorn and din’, reversing the figure (addition without increase as Larkin might have said) is further dissipated by the inevitable ‘ancestors’ and ‘tongues’. They are there as markers and don’t detain us long: our concern is the world of human activity rather than human particularity. Particularity discriminates, activity generalises.

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.

Again, laboured inclusiveness has nothing to do with Whitman’s felt connections. Alexander’s is an effort of construction, not celebration; she suppresses distinction, cultural and qualitative. Her neutrality, the rigid evenness of tone, the resolve not to exclude, produces clichés rather than templates. We must suspend judgement, assume a posture of good will, as the poems read at Aids vigils and protest gatherings can require us to do. The politics of ingratiating inoffensiveness (‘On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp’) is academic in the most embarrassed way. Balance at all costs must be maintained: where there is darkness, light; sweetness, sourness; noise, silence; where left, right. Her pairings include: ‘spiny or smooth’, ‘whispered or declaimed’; ‘consider, reconsider’; ‘dirt roads and highways’.

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.

Earnestly we listen for the names. She does not sing them. A gesture at celebration, and then she stays the voice. ‘In a way,’ she told an interviewer, ‘poetry has a bad rap for being an esoteric and inaccessible art form […] What I tried to do was to write a poem that would be accessible, but also retain the complexity of a good poem.’ She found a constituency: ‘I’ve had hundreds of letters from Finland, Brazil, from farmers and first grade teachers, thanking me for my words.’

Elizabeth Alexander is by all accounts a good professor. She has also been and will again be a reckonable poet. On this almost impossible occasion, as the man who chose her for it might have said, she ‘screwed up’. Well, Maya Angelou screwed up pretty badly before her, and Robert Frost - I remember his attempt at a reading, the papers and his white hair blowing, his great sweet age muted as much by winter as by the occasion itself. It was thrilling; it was not poetry.

Wendy Cope, ruling herself out of the British Laureateship stakes, argued recently that the role of an establishment praise poet is thankless and should be abolished. If it is retained, then the claims of the art of poetry should be honoured quite as much as the claims of politics. ‘A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.’

This item is taken from PN Review 186, Volume 35 Number 4, March - April 2009.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
Searching, please wait... animated waiting image