As I listened to Krista Tippett’s interview with Elizabeth Alexander, “Words That Shimmer,” I found myself closing my other open tabs on my computer, limiting my distractions visually, and putting on headphones so that I would not miss a word of the interview. I have listened to this interview four times now and each time I have paused and replayed sections that stuck out to me. One of these sections that I felt drawn to was when Elizabeth Alexander described her effect on the crowd at President Obama’s inauguration.
As Elizabeth Alexander sound checked, she read “Kitchenette Building.” This poem was not her own creation, however she was a vehicle for its impact on the crowd. People stopped and gathered to hear a poem describe such a simple setting in such an extraordinary way. In Alexander’s words, “ I continued with the poem which asks about could a dream rise up through onion fumes and yesterday's garbage ripening in the halls?” When Alexander read her own poem about different forms of love, she once more moved the crowd to cheering. As her interview progressed, Alexander connected the first poem to snatching time to write poetry. Even as she nursed her child, Alexander wrote what remained after sleep deprivation took away her mind’s filtering. I find this extraordinarily simple, yet dumbfounding complex notion. Beautiful poetry is not linked to beautiful moments.
To me, this is exactly what I imagined happened to W. S. Merwin, who wrote “Present Company.” While I don’t think Merwin stayed up at three a. m. nursing a child, I believe he also took advantage of the ordinary “mundaneness” of life. In each of his poems, he titled them “ To…….” By writing about what was before him, it immediately caused panic in the reader’s mind. “Why is he talking to his legs” Why is addressing time?” This panic forces the reader to pause and look for the intended (or perhaps unintended) significance of the addressee.
Together, I believe these poets prove that appreciating poetry sometimes requires stopping and replaying what confuses us as readers. Elizabeth Alexander did not create the poem she sound checked with, yet it stood out by its own merit, not by its creator’s presence. The crowd was not held captive by the authority emanating from a public speaker. They were engaged and focused on the setting presented through the poem, not what chaos currently surrounded them. Just like the men and women who paused a moment that cold day to hear Alexander’s voice above the roar of the crowd, I too have paused to reflect on the austerity of a podcast about words that shimmer.
More information about text formats