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The inaugural 'Praise Song,' remixed

February 4, 2009 |  9:36 am


It was good news for poetry that Barack Obama had award-winning poet Elizabeth Alexander read at his inauguration last month. It was maybe not as good news for Elizabeth Alexander, who had to follow Obama's speech -- a challenging time slot for sure. The poem was, to some, underwhelming, and to others, forgettable.

But one man saw this as an opportunity: the radio DJ who goes by Kenny G at WFMU. WFMU is an independent, free-form radio station in New Jersey that broadcasts into New York City (it's online, too). WFMU is the kind of place where just about anything goes, so when Kenny G was thinking there might be a better way to do the inaugural poem, he invited remixes of it and played them on his show on Jan. 28.

He also posted 51 MP3 remixes on WFMU's blog. Some include added echos and other effects. Many turn the poem into a song, adding overlapping layers of sound, synthetic strings and burbles and beats. There's a low-tech version, in which the poem's lines are sung to the tune of "Daisy Bell," the song that begins "Daisy, Daisy, tell me your answer, do...." Some chopped up her recitation for lyrics -- in one version, she intones "Let us make love in the road," a very John Lennon sentiment.

Several recut her words without adding anything else, creating new poems of their own. My favorite is one of these: it's "Some Someone Someone Someone Something Somewhere." Remixer Jonathan Wall took all the words in the poem and set them in alphabetical order. Maybe it's his tighter pacing, maybe it's the serendipity of how the words fit together: "Farmer figuring finial... day day day dead declaimed died din... noise on oil drum." This version vibrates in a way the original did not.

There is something -- poetic? -- in people creatively engaging with a poem to give it more zing. Maybe this kind of spirited participation is connected to Obama's new administration. Or maybe the poem, dissatisfying in its original form, inspired creativity in others.

Of course, there are many who prefer the original version of "Praise Song for the Day." The complete text is online here and will be released as a special edition chapbook by Graywolf Press later this month.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times