I want to make it clear, I thought Obama’s inauguration speech was deep, was heavy, was intelligent—and even brilliant at some points—and I think in the future people will read it on the page and find a lot to admire, maybe even class it as one of the best.
As I said, it was well written—for reading on the page. I just wanted to be moved and inspired in the ways I was when he spoke at the 2004 Democratic convention and the 2008 Democratic convention, or the night he won the Iowa primaries, or the night he won the election.
That opinion doesn’t change the reality of my tears as he took the oath of office, or at seeing his beautiful bride and him dance to Beyonce’s version of “At Last” on the TV last night, or my admiration for and belief in his intelligence, his courage, his equanimity, and his ability to bring some real change (as he already has in the ways he has not abandoned his own beliefs but has accommodated and included those who disagree with him).
I also believe in his judgment and think it is based on his desire to bridge the chasm that developed between Republicans and Democrats in this country, as well as between “whites” and “blacks” and other historic categories.
But I have mixed feelings about the judgment that decided a somber, sober, serious speech that avoided the kinds of soaring rhetoric and cadences that made his most moving speeches so effective (he has done this balancing act all along, giving speeches on economic policies or on foreign policy etc. to various interest groups or in public forums that were more nuanced, more accommodating, more professorial and low key etc.) was best for such an historic occasion.
I would have liked to have seen some fireworks. I would also have liked to have seen someone give the invocation other than Warren. I know why he was chosen, and I respect Obama’s attempts to bring all parties and factions and beliefs together. But speaking of doing that in his speech, mentioning specifically Muslims and Jews and Hindus and “nonbelievers” as well as “Christians,” and then hearing Warren evoke the name of Jesus as “the” God, well, that’s like saying I’ll tolerate your beliefs but they’re wrong. [For a much better alternative, check my friend rj's blog for the invocation issued by the Reverend Robinson before Sunday's Lincoln Memorial gala.]
There are so many great spiritual leaders who could have evoked a sense of God or a Higher Power without naming that force in a way that’s specific to only one religious belief.
It was the same with the poet. God bless her. She’s obviously respected in academia, but she came across as one of the weaker academic poets, at least in the poem she read yesterday. There are so many great poets in this country right now, more than ever. And I understand that her approach to the poem was [I assume deliberately] pedestrian and therefore accessible in ways that some of our greatest poets might not have come across as—John Ashbery say—but wouldn’t it have been wonderful to have a poet read a poem that had the billions of people watching this event come away in awe at the unique ways our language can be used.
And even if you had to have a poet whose message would be clear and simple, there are others whose lifetime of great work could have been honored and whose poem would have at least left people curious, their minds altered by the message and/or the way it was conveyed instead of either bored or assuaged in some simple way—like say Joanne Kyger or Diane diPrima or Adrienne Rich or Nikki Giovanni or so many more that—like any of them or not—their poems would have at least forced any audience to reflect on the myriad ways language can be used to express and to confront and to inspire and engage.
Alexander’s poem wasn’t terrible [I have poet friends who actually dug it and defend it], it just didn’t rise to the occasion. It was relatively mediocre, at least as it came across on the TV. Just in DC alone, Obama could have found exceptional poets who would have at least delivered a more challenging and exciting poem—Terence Winch, E. Ethelbert Miller, Doug Lang, just to mention three I know personally [and I could add more, like Martina Darragh or P. Inman or Lynne Dreyer, et. al.].
The best part of the whole inaugural ceremony—aside from the actual swearing in—was the little “classical” interlude based on the old Shaker hymn “’Tis a Gift to be Simple” and the benediction at the end by Reverend Lowry. There was that striving toward the best humans can achieve in the Yo-Yo-Ma and gang performance that elevates the soul and the spirit and all our yearning for excellence, and there was the equally great humor and dailiness of humanity in Rev. Lowry’s remarks, especially when he had the crowd chuckling at his reversal of the old racial admonitions “If you’re black get back, etc.” turning them into positive admonitions for this new world where whites no longer rule all and in fact will soon be in the minority as the world, at least our world in the USA, begins to look more and more like Obama’s extended family.
As Alfre Woodard said when asked what she felt yesterday: “paradigm shift.” Paradigm shift indeed. I would have liked to have seen that shift more in evidence during the actual inauguration ceremony (as it obviously was meant to be by the choice of a classical quartet that managed to represent Asians, Africans, Jews and women, etc.) with bolder choices, that’s all.
PS: None of this diminishes my total support and belief in Obama and his abilities, nor in the need for the kinds of changes he has promised or at least projected. But from now on, whoever selected the talent for the Lincoln Memorial concert on Sunday should be running any events Obama plans, if that duet (as pointed out by my friend Tom on his Birth of the Cool site) from Jon Bon Jovi and Bettye LaVette (a woman I actually had some interaction with (Gene, if you're reading this you might remember that night) back in the days of segregation when she performed at a club outside Greenville, South Carolina called The Ghana which advertised itself at the time (1961-2) as "the world's largest colored resort" and where I sometimes played house piano as the only "white" I ever saw there outside of some "white" managers of "black" acts, but they were forced to stay in a tiny segregated for "white" managers only little room off the main one) on Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” (which Tom labels, as many do, “It’s Been a Long Time Comin’”) had been sung at the inaugural the tears of joy and relief and wonder at how things have turned out would have caused a flood.