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The Unpoet By: Ben Johnson
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, January 20, 2009


Barack Obama has undercut any claims of meritocracy with at least one choice: the woman who will delivering his inaugural poem. Aside from the fact that she has known Obama since they worked together at the University of Chicago, one is hard-pressed to find a rationale for this honor. Only the fourth poet to participate in a presidential inauguration, Elizabeth Alexander is no Robert Frost, nor even Maya Angelou. Alexander is an unpoet who arranges words into impenetrable jumbles flecked with juvenile imagery, inappropriate word choice, an obsessive PC view of race and "gender," a dubious take on miscegenation, and an occasional desire to kill whitey.

Perhaps she will regale her national audience with her observations on motherhood, which she writes:

Is
funky, is
leaky, is
a soggy, bloody crotch, is
sharp jets of breast milk shot straight across the room,
is gaudy, mustard-colored poop...

She proceeds to display a fascination with bodily fluids and functions consistent with an eighth grade locker room:

the baby farts,
we laugh. The baby burps, we smile, say “Yes.”
The baby poops, his whole body stiffens,
then steam heat floods the pipes....

The spirit lives in your squirts and coos.
Your noises and fluids are what you do.

She questions the baby's feeding patterns with adolescent non-language. ("Three feedings? Hunh.") Then she turns her attention to her discarded placenta, calling it a "mammoth giblet":

The midwife presents it on a platter.
We do not eat, have no Tupperware
to take it home and sanctify a tree.

Instead, we marvel at my cast-off meat,
the almost-pulsing slab, bloody mesa,
what lived moments ago, and now has died.

Eventually, she writes of the tenderness of motherhood, addressing her beloved child as:

my whelp, my cub, my seapup.
In the days before you smile at me
or call me Mama or love me,
love is all tit, all wheat-smelling milk, humid crook of the arm

Alexander includes dream sequences of her obstetrician spending the night before the birth with her family, writing the doctor "looks like a loaf of whole wheat bread."  She dreams her child's head pops off and she has to put it back on. Then she sees:

All of my aunties chatting like crows on a line,
all of my aunties on electric breast pumps,
the double kind, one for each exhausted tit.

She uses the word "tit" only twice in this poem but employs "funky" three times; she could write lyrics for Lipps Inc.

For a profession so dependent on the use of language, Alexander is notable for her inappropriate use of same. David Horowitz has written about her misuse of the Greek word "chroma." She also misuses "caesuras" and confuses the medical discipline of "Neonatology" with new motherhood. Such confusion is not limited to the written word; the golden-tongued poet told an unflinching audience at the Cambridge Forum, "I first read Jet Magazine...before I could read."

More concerning than her transgressions against the English (and Greek and Latin) language(s) is Alexander's all-encompassing focus on race, though so often drowned in pretentious doublespeak.  She told the Cambridge Forum she sees poetry as a means to help blacks "envision what we are not meant to envision," such as "real and enactable black power." Her body of work reflects her choice to "meditate" on "a new-fashioned race pride." Alexander insisted in her prose anthology The Black Interior, "black thought and life rarely go uninterrupted by the violent gougings of racism."

The title poem in her first, celebrated book The Venus Hottentot discusses the case of Saartjie Baartman, an African slave put on display in Europe in the early nineteenth century (as the "Hottentot Venus," not the "Venus Hottentot"). It contains Alexander's familiar, juvenile banality:

Monsieur Cuvier investigates
between my legs, poking, prodding,
sure of his hypothesis.
I half expect him to pull silk
scarves from inside me, paper poppies,
then a rabbit! He complains
at my scent

However, the poem concludes with a violent fantasy response to a white onlooker:

If he were to let me rise up
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.

Way to bridge the racial divide, Liz.

One can hardly believe this exhortation to violence is being rewarded by our president-elect. It is also hard to imagine our "first post-racial president" would showcase one so obsessed with defining "blackness." One can see this in her many academic discussions of the matter. One can also read it in her poem "Race," which discusses a biracial great-uncle who "became fundamentally white for the rest of his life," and his relationship with his family back East, "just as pale-skinned,
as straight-haired, as blue-eyed as Paul, and black":

The siblings in Harlem each morning ensured
no one confused them for anything other than what they were, black.
They were black! Brown-skinned spouses reduced confusion...

The one time Great-Uncle Paul brought his wife to New York
he asked his siblings not to bring their spouses,
and that is where the story ends: ivory siblings who would not
see their brother without their telltale spouses.

If Alexander believes brown-skinned spouses dispel confusion about "race," is she implying they are a prerequisite for "blackness"? Or are they merely a prerequisite for light-skinned blacks? Is she saying miscegenation with "ivory" people is wrong, at least insofar as children of its union will be lighter still? Isn't this a great deal of wasted concern over a non-entity such as race? Yet on she goes, with characteristic portrayals of whites consumed with racism. For instance, one of her newest poems discusses a black female pilot who steers a crashing plane to safety:

All the white passengers bailed out
before impact, so certain a sister

couldn’t navigate the crash. O gender.
O race. O ye of little faith.

O please.

If these tangled thoughts seem infected with the typical outlook of academic leftism, it's because they are. Alexander is a fellow at Radcliffe, though she usually teaches African American Studies at Yale. Her odes to the downtrodden aside, she hails from a left-wing privileged background. As a youngster, she left Harlem for Washington's Sidwell Friends School, then Yale. Elizabeth is a second generation shiller, speaking in less understandable but equally aggrieved tones as her mother, Adele Logan Alexander, who is also a professor of African American Studies. Adele confessed she uses her academic pulpit at George Washington University to emphasize the illusion and failed promise of the United States:

I try to stress in my teaching, is the enormous divergence between the American dream - the remarkable American dream as epitomized in the Constitution - and the reality for people who were and are not of the more educated classes and who are immigrants, who are religious minorities, who are Native Americans, even women, but especially those who were and are African Americans. For African Americans there has always been a wide a divergence between the dream and the reality.

Elizabeth's father served in more exalted capacities: an adviser to Lyndon Johnson before being named chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and ultimately Secretary of the Army under Jimmy Carter. His service in the latter capacity notwithstanding, he undermined troop morale in a 2005 interview with Tavis Smiley, in which he inferred our current president is a a deceiver who sent American soldiers into Iraq based on a lie:

You have a president who has used an improper reason for entering into a war -- the Weapons of Mass Destruction -- you now have a president who comes up with a reason a day for why we are in Iraq...I think this president and vice president need to sort of hurry up and get on the truthful train, because what they've not done is given us the real reasons why we are in Iraq and the real reasons why we should stay there.

Elizabeth is not the only sibling doing well. Her brother Mark, a professor at Yale Law School, worked for Bill Bradley, Ted Kennedy, and Howard Metzenbaum before becoming an adviser on Obama's transition team.

This privileged background has not aided Alexander in conveying a coherent or factual narrative in her work. She told the New York Times her poetry “attends to history,” including “sometimes thorny and difficult American history.” Presumably she meant "difficult" in the academic sense, as she boasted to a radio interviewer of something she considered one of Barack Obama's singular accomplishments: "Certainly we haven't had a president who 's been a professor, um, that is to say, someone who spends at least a part of his professional life thinking about complicated ideas and trying to make them comprehensible and working them through with students." Of course, Woodrow Wilson was not only a professor but president of Princeton, where he denied blacks' applications. (He screened The Birth of a Nation in the White House.) Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe founded the University of Virginia. One might be forgiven for thinking George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, FDR, and others entertained complicated ideas. Even Bill Clinton spent a year as a law professor at the University of Arkansas.

I still believe in a place called remedial education.

She could begin by learning poetry. "The Venus Hottentot," she notes incredulously, "was rejected for years. I'm not going to speculate why; I don't know why." Perhaps its distinctly unpoetic imagery and bloodlust? The first is a staple of hers. In another poem, she looks at a picture of a cancer-stricken friend and states, "I imagine [the virus] as a single, swimming paisley, a sardine with serrated fins and a neon spine." As evidenced above, much of her poetry is surreal for a reason: Alexander is inspired by “the fabulously logical illogic of nighttime dreams.” A note in a news story produced by Harvard calls into question exactly what kind of poem she may recite today. According to the report, Alexander says she "has been listening to sad stories this year, and to the great blues singers, 'and longing to sing myself.'" Obama's may be the first inauguration to have a twelve-bar ditty about infant excrement or submerging racists's internal organs in formaldehyde.

Or perhaps she will rise to the occasion and deliver something less offensive, even something inspiring. As Yogi Berra once said, "Predictions are hard, especially about the future." But predictions arise from assessments of observable data, and nothing in her career of affluent oppression, professional victimhood, obsessive racial self-analysis, or conjoining of redefined words masquerading as poetry indicates she will. She is not the voice of a nation's culture. She is a left-wing Floyd R. Turbo filtered through academia. She confuses loquacious self-absorption with sagacious eloquence.

In light of Obama's campaign, she may be the perfect choice after all.


Ben Johnson is Managing Editor of FrontPage Magazine and co-author, with David Horowitz, of the book Party of Defeat. He is also the author of the books Teresa Heinz Kerry's Radical Gifts (2009) and 57 Varieties of Radical Causes: Teresa Heinz Kerry's Charitable Giving (2004).


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