Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Professor Elizabeth Alexander

Elizabeth Alexander- literary giant

"Roses are red,
violets are blue,
my car is green,
my house is orange"

I was reminded of the above while I listened to Elizabeth Alexander read her poem yesterday at the Obama inaugural. Now, let me confess at the outset that I know little or nothing about poetry, except that it is supposed to rhyme-or has that gone out of style? Frankly, I thought the lady was breaking down the upcoming Super Bowl game except she never mentioned who was going to win. I've heard more sensible prose in barrooms at closing time.

"One, two, three, four,
what time is it?"

The only time in my life I ever did any research about poetry was when I was writing my books about the languages of the former Soviet republics and Papiamentu, a creole language spoken in the Dutch Antilles. Since poets usually have a lot to do with the development and standardization of languages, it was necessary for me to learn about the important poets of those respective languages who played important roles.

Hopefully, such will not be the case for Ms Alexander. If this is an example of modern poetry, then it must rank alongside what modern art did to art and hip-hop did to music (destroyed them).

Check this one out and note it's message.

..."from this table, I’d spirit
his knives and cut out his black heart,
seal it with science fluid inside
a bell jar, place it on a low
shelf in a white man’s museum
so the whole world could see
it was shriveled and hard,
geometric, deformed, unnatural."

From "The Venus Hottentot"
(a poem about slavery in Europe)

Or these lines excerpted from "Neonatology":

“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.

“Shockingly vital, mammoth giblet,

“the second living thing to break free

“of my body in fifteen minutes.

“The midwife presents it on a platter."

As Lawrence Welk used to say, "Ah horrible, ah horrible ah".

That's how you get a PHD, folks. Yep, Dr Alexander has all the requisite degrees, honors and awards from the hallowed halls of academia-too numerous to list here on my humble little blog. She is a pal of Obama from Chicago and is now a professor of English and African-American Studies at ..ahem...Yale University.

"All rise!"

So now that Bill Clinton has dropped Maya Angelou on us, we get Elizabeth Alexander. Frankly, I'm up to here with poetry, especially after seeing all these dopey pro-Hamas rallies going on here in the States, you know, like...

"From the river to the sea,
Palestine will be free"

(Actually it sounds pretty good with a bullhorn-better than something about a baby being born.)

Hey, that rhymes! I'm a poet and don't know it.


Anonymous said...

Now, let me confess at the outset that I know little or nothing about poetry, except that it is supposed to rhyme-or has that gone out of style?

Okay, you definitely know nothing about it then. It doesn't need to rhyme and never HAS needed to rhyme.

And why is being a professor at Yale something to scoff at? I mean, it's no UCI Extension, but...

Anyways I do agree that her poem was terrible. They really should have just gotten Maya Angelou. I'm sure they could have, too.

Lance Christian Johnson said...

Now, let me confess at the outset that I know little or nothing about poetry, except that it is supposed to rhyme

...and wrong on the first try!

Gary Fouse said...


Are you guys co-writing now?

And Bryan,

Believe it or not, most of our teachers in ESL/EXT are half-way normal folks. Most of us have seen the real world, lived overseas, married spouses from other countries and know other languages. We are a pretty good mix of liberals, conservatives and moderates. (Of course, I am the real extremist in the office.)

So, yes, Yale, Harvard, Columbia, UCB etc are nothing like good old UCI-Ext. Our cozy little office tucked away in a corner of the campus is free of the ivory tower pinheads that you see at most other places.

As we say in Italian, "Dico bene?"

Lance Christian Johnson said...

Nah, I'm just an English teacher, Gary, so I had to call you out on that one. I do agree with you and Bryan though, as her poetry doesn't do all that much for me either.

But yeah, poetry has never been about rhyming. Hamlet's whole "To be or not to be" soliloquy is poetry, and it doesn't rhyme. Shoot, I've never read the original Greek, but I don't think that either The Iliad or The Odyssey rhyme, and I'm fairly certain that the original Beowulf doesn't rhyme either, and those three are all called epic poems.

And you obviously missed Haiku-a-day month (November) which I observed over at my blog. That was chock-full of non-rhyming poems. In fact, I think it's safe to say that Haiku in general doesn't rhyme.

Gary Fouse said...

Believe it or not, I know about Haiku. In my book on Papiamentu, I described Ellis Juliana, a Curacaoan writer who writes Haiku in Papiamentu.

See, I'm not just some hick.

Lance Christian Johnson said...

Well, see then - you ought to have known better. : )

Linnea Hannigan said...

Gary, my second grade twins were made to sit and watch the entire inauguration. My daughter said to me "there were a few things I didn't understand, and a few things I did understand, and a few things I really didn't like" So, I asked her to elaborate. She understood the lady singing, but didn't get why her hat was so big (I simply replied: It's ARETHA, baby, that's Aretha.)

Next, my daughter said "There was a lady who read a poem and it was like she was just saying words that were all mixed up and it sounded ugly. I didn't like it because most of it was sad and mean sounding. Why did the president invite her?" I said "I agree and I don't know."

Then my daughter said there was a man from Lake Forest there who prayed really hard." I had to laugh.

Out of the mouths of babes.

And by the way, I take exception at you claiming to be the wingnuttiest of the right wing wing nuts in our office. I thought I was doing pretty well, but I will defer to you because of your age ;-)

Gary Fouse said...


I don't care if Aretha Franklin is the greatest of whatever. That rendition of "My country tis of Thee" was an abortion of what is usually a great song.

Anonymous said...

I thought Aretha did pretty bad, too. But in her defense, she is getting pretty old.

Gary Fouse said...


The best rule is to sing the song the way it was written, like the Spar Spangled Banner. Her voice was not the problem.

Linnea Hannigan said...

I totally agree with your comment on Aretha's rendition of a beautiful song - I dislike it intently when the artist takes "liberties" with the National Anthem, or any traditional patriotic song. Call me conservative...... please!