The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Elizabeth Alexander, Inaugural poet.

For me, the most unforgettable part of President Obama's inauguration shall ever be, The Inauguration Poem read by Elizabeth Alexander. It was unforgettable in the way atom bombs are unforgettable: truly terrible.

Now, I love words. I appreciate those who craft them into art and make of them something beautiful - but, and this is a big but, I don't like to see them abused. Elizabeth Alexander's poem was, in itself, nothing special. It had nothing particularly interesting to say. It had no memorable lines (so I have forgotten it all already, being, as it was, unworthy of remark). However, that was not the crime for which she will long be remembered: her crime against art, was that she cannot read. She may be a Professor of African American Studies and English Literature at Yale University, she may be an "award-winning poet" (though I wonder which awards and why she won them) - but she is not an able performer. Her stilted, indeed, stunted, rendering of the English language marred the Inauguration in a way that no-one else, despite some evident effort in some quarters, quite managed to.

Elizabeth Alexander had less ability to read English than, I think, any of the foreign students of English I have ever taught in my life. It was as if her mental processing abilities struggled to interpret each word, individually, finally worked out what they were, said them, then proceeded to struggle with the next word, and so on, interminably, until the welcome end. I have glanced over some interviews she gave in the lead up to the inauguration and she came across as very sure of her own abilities and filled with arcane understanding of the poet's art. It seems, however, that her understanding does not extend beyond that of a critic - for she is not, by this evidence, a natural poet, nor a natural performer/speaker of English. She also remarked that she always sought to find the rhythm of a piece. Perhaps, to be kind, that was what she was trying to do: find rhythm in her words. Well, personally, I have always found it easy to find rhythm in speech - simply opening one's mouth and speaking usually does the trick. She, however, struggled to find this rhythm of which she sought. She laboured over it. She toiled with each word, wrestling with it, begging it to be rhythmic - and failed.

I have been to a couple of poetry readings in my life - not many, I admit, but in their varied performances I never noted anyone who lacked the basic ability to read aloud. In fact, I found myself embarrassed to watch her excruciating peformance: it made me squirm to witness it, so bad was it.

Now, there is a serious point as to why I have brought this awful - perhaps the most awful - poetry performance to the attention of my readers. You see, Elizabeth Alexander's terrible lack of basic poetic talent, leads me to ask a question: is President Obama going to choose people because they are the best at what they do - or for other reasons, closer to home? Is President Obama going to abide by meritocratic principles - or is he going to offer positions to people whose native merit doesn't deserve them?

I cannot believe that Elizabeth Alexander is the best poet in America. I cannot believe that she is the best poetic performer in America (since all of the students I have ever taught read better than her - and they don't even speak English). Yet, Elizabeth Alexander was chosen for this very special moment. Her poem was heard by more people on Earth than perhaps any other poem has ever been heard. Yet, it was not a good poem, not remotely so. Furthermore, it was read as if she had no feeling for language at all.

If Elizabeth Alexander really had to be the Inauguration poet, someone else really should have read the poem. There are people who could read a shopping list and make it sound interesting. Someone with that kind of gift should have been chosen. A natural actor should have read the poem - not Elizabeth Alexander, Yale Professor and "award winning" poet.

President Obama needs to change the way he selects people. He cannot select people based on any other criteria than quality. They should be the best at what they do. Only in this manner will he best serve the American people.

If there is a single poet in America better than Elizabeth Alexander, then she should not have been chosen - whether they be black, white, asian, Muslim or Jew - if there is a better poet, they should have been selected. If there is a single performer, whether they be black, white, asian, Muslim or Jew better than Elizabeth Alexander, they should have been selected to read it. (It seems to me, offhand, that any of the hundreds of thousands of members of Actor's Equity would have done a better job: picking any one of them at random would have produced a better result than this).

Perhaps President Obama was fooled by her credentials. Elizabeth Alexander is, after all, a Yale Professor - and he might, therefore, have expected much of her. However, as I noted from my own experience of Cambridge University, appointment at a prominent University is no guarantee of quality. Some people are very good at securing advancement for themselves despite limited ability in the area in which they are advanced. It is common for University academics to have good critical skills, but indifferent creative ones. From the evidence of yesterday's astonishing performance, Elizabeth Alexander may well be such an academic.

I hope never to see another appointment made by President Obama, for any other reason than merit. He lowers the world's view of him, by doing so. President Obama must surround himself by the best, if his administration is to be of the best. I cannot believe that Elizabeth Alexander is the best America had to offer. Quite simply, she should never have been there - and I should never have heard of her.

Please do better next time, President Obama: the United States deserves it.

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged eight years and seven months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, five years exactly, and Tiarnan, twenty-eight months, please go to: I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, the Irish, the Malays, Singapore, College, University, Chemistry, Science, genetics, left-handedness, precocity, child prodigy, child genius, baby genius, adult genius, savant, wunderkind, wonderkind, genio, гений ребенок prodigy, genie, μεγαλοφυία θαύμα παιδιών, bambino, kind.

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 7:55 PM 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Cawley,

For my part, I think you have to do better than this.

Your criticism of Ms. Alexander borders on the hyperbolic, and you go too far when you cast aspersions on her profession as an academic, and by implication, on the university as an institution.

Let me put it this way: Ms. Alexander may not be a poet deserving of the acolades she received in the past, but let's make a distinction between Ms. Alexander the poet and Ms. Alexander the academic.

Secondly, has it occurred to you that Mr. Obama had no part to play in the planning of the Inauguration Ceremony? Your fears are deeply unfounded. He may not turn out to be the extraordinary President that the world thinks he is, but that has nothing to do with how poor in your estimation the Inauguration Ceremony was.


12:40 AM  
Anonymous exsingie said...

Hi Valentine,

I missed watching the inauguration on TV. My take on it is Obama pandered very heavily to the black votes to get elected, politics being how it is in the US the winner has to payback all the favors that brought him the greatest prize of all. I'm no fan of Obama for various reasons & will not go into it here. But as an American citizen I'll support him since he's our President now. So he'll have the next 4-8 years (if he gets thru his first term) to prove his mettle to the American people. BTW I did not vote for him.

7:33 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Let us hope that his choices, over the years ahead are more balanced, than those of the Inauguration.

Thanks, Exsingie.

7:39 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

On the contrary, it is you who can do better. You see, firstly I would advise checking the facts of the situation before criticizing the facts of my own. You say that Obama is not responsible for the Inauguration and so cannot be blamed for its choices. This is absolutely wrong. As you can read in these newspaper articles:

Obama personally decided on a) having an Inauguration poem…and b) Elizabeth Alexander as the choice.

You say I am hyperbolic…not so. I only wish it were so, in fact. I have accurately rendered the impression she gave as she read. Almost everyone on the net agrees with me. Indeed over night I have had many posters arrive on my site with the search terms: “Elizabeth Alexander terrible poet”. Some even go to the extent of writing: “Terrible awful bad inaugural poet” etc. I am not alone in my view of her work – in fact, the planet is crowded with people who agree with my assessment.

President Obama chose Elizabeth Alexander – and so all my comments about why that choice should not have been made apply.

As for my comments on academia – they are entirely fair. Academics are, in my experience (and I do have two degrees, so I have met a lot of academics) generally good at critical tasks (which I have said she might be) but poor at creative ones (which she has just demonstrated). So I don’t think I am being unfair to her. In fact, I am allowing the possibility that she is good at critical tasks without any positive evidence that this is so.

I have not criticized her University at all…so I don’t know why you think I have. Are you something to do with her University?

My characterization that not the best people necessarily make it to the top, is also fair, since it is universally true.

Thank you for your comment, however.

7:57 AM  
Anonymous exsingie said...

Hi Valentine,

Yes, I sure hope that Obama made good choices in his kitchen cabinet for the sake of the country. As a leader you are only as good as the people you surround yourself with. I think one of the hallmarks of a great leader is the ability to find the best & most competent people who will not be a yes-man.

Obama is trying to pattern himself after Abraham Lincoln who in my opinion was the greatest president the US ever had & a most compassionate and very empathic human being. Jury is still out on whether Obama will be able to attain it. We'll see how he does in the next 4 years.

I recommend you read "Team of Rivals" by Doris Kearns Goodwin about Lincoln to get a sense of what an exceptional human being and leader Lincoln was.

If you would like to get the book & have problems getting it from let me know & I can get a copy from here & mail it to you.


9:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Cawley,

My apologies. Mr. Obama did choose Ms. Alexander to write and deliver the poem.

Still, to say that she reads worse than some of your students, for whom English is not their first language, does appear hyperbolic.

Lastly, one swallow does not a summer make. Ms. Alexander may have disappointed you this time, but it surely ungracious to say that she is not a deserving recipient of the awards she won throughout her career.

As a self-proclaimed poet, would you care to enlighten your readers on the perceived faults of her creation?

10:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Cawley,

Just out of curiosity, I would like to ask if you are the very author of the poems which bear your name. Or is this a coincidence?


10:37 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I find your continued attitude somewhat puzzling. You see, I am in the position of having heard Elizabeth Alexander read, I have also, over the course of my life, heard many students read, whose first language is not English. It is true that almost ALL of them read better than she did at the Inauguration. Why would you question that and assume it to be hyperbolic without having actually heard the students yourself (when I have)? You do seem to be making assumptions.

Where, exactly, on my site have I declared myself a "poet"? There is someone with the same name as me (or using my name, anyway,) on the internet who is writing embarrassingly bad rubbish - but that person is not me. It appears to be someone who likes to drink and smoke a little too much, according to the write up of a friend of his. I would not call what that person writes poetry.

I have written poetry in my life (long ago, in my twenties) but I have not proclaimed that.

I don't find her poem interesting enough to analyse in detail. To do so, would be, in essence to write a better poem - and I have no particular interest in doing that, online, at this time.

You make assumption after assumption. You assume to know the quality of my former students' reading aloud. You assume that I have proclaimed myself a poet. Neither assumption has any foundation.

I had never heard of Elizabeth Alexander before the Inauguration. The evidence I have seen does not support the idea that she should have been the recipient of awards. Then again, I did not, as you think, go as far as to say she should not have received them: I only wondered why she had received them.

Why do you support Elizabeth Alexander so much...when the general global opinion, as measured by internet chatter and the searchers who arrive at my site, coincides EXACTLY with my view of her work?

I would be interested to learn why.

10:41 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thanks for the recommendation Exsingie...I will try to see if I can find that book in Singapore. I know, from experience, that ordering from Amazon is difficult from here (I have tried and failed several times).

Let us hope that Obama indeed turns out to be as good as Abraham Lincoln.

10:47 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

No. "Stoned Tales" are not mine. I found them online and wrote to the site manager asking them if that was really the true name of the "poet" in question and if NOT to stop using my name. They did not reply to me, nor did they take the poems down.

I don't know if it is really the name of the person in question. It is notable that the poems only appeared after I became quite well known in Ireland (where the "poet" is supposedly from) so it could be a case of someone adopting my name as their pen name. It is also possible that it is their real name, since there are a fair few Cawleys in Ireland.

I find the existence of those poems a kind of libel, so bad are they...but what can I do if it is his real name? Should I ever find out that it is not his real name, I would sue to get him to desist using my name in such a reputation reducing context.

His work is pretty poor.

Anyway, I hope that clears that up.

10:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just went to google the poem and you're right. I thought it was disjointed - there was no flow, no rhythm. It seems like the writer did not have a clear idea of what she wants to write.

3:40 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you for your corroborative opinion. It is good to hear that others agree with me. The lone voice in this scenario is the Elizabeth Alexander supporter above. I just found something else interesting about her work...more later.

4:22 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Elizabeth Alexander has written many poems in her life. So, to see whether the terrible Inauguration Poem, Praise Song for the Day, was a one off and whether all her other work was consistently strong enough to justify the title "award-winning" I took a look at another poem.

Here is part of it:


funky, is
leaky, is
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.

Then everything dries and disappears
Then everything dries and disappears

Now, I don't know about you but that poem manages to take the beauty of childbirth and create something almost emetic from it.

Personally, I like to see other qualities in poetry than the desire to vomit.

I am unsure of the criteria by which modern poets are judged. By ancient criteria of quality, many modern poets would fail.

There are other ways to write about childbirth and children than that.

6:23 PM  
Blogger Shannon said...

The delivery lacked conviction. It's unfortunate that Elizabeth Alexander's past and future work might be judged on "Praise Song for the Day." A poet's lifetime of work should not be measured by one poem.

"Neonatology" again does not resonate with me, but perhaps there is something that I am missing.

12:31 AM  
Blogger Miao said...

Dear Mr Cawley,

I feel so happy to read this post. This entry completely echoes my sentiments. Halfway through Professor Alexander's recital, I simply had to switch off the volume, because I really couldn't stand the way she was mutilating the art of poetry. I have also written a blog entry about Professor Alexander's lack of poetic acumen (I immediately went online to write about it when the ceremony ended, because I really couldn't suppress my disgust), and some friends have commented that that poetry is really very subjective, and that Professor Alexander must have her own merit after all. But I do think that there are some objective literary rules which have to be followed in order to distinguish a true poem from a piece of (bad) prose that has been broken into lies at random intervals - it is precisely these rules that give a poem its artistic scaffolding, that endow it with a certain poetic rhythm. Furthermore, I also think that while everyone has the freedom of expression (they are free to articulate their feelings and thought in verse form if they so desire), the least these people can do is to be considerate towards poetry as a proper type of art, instead of submitting unpolished pieces as 'poems'. This is especially unacceptable given the extraordinary importance of the event - it was, after all, President Obama's Inauguration Ceremony. I find it very disgraceful that such a horrible piece of work was presented, and I find it even more shocking that Professor Alexander had the cheek to write such an embarrassing work.

Personally I think Thom Gunn would have made a much better choice - Mr Gunn is homosexual and advanced in age, and he is a decent poet who has produced quite a number of literary gems. Inviting Mr Gunn to grace the ceremony would have captured President Obama's liberal outlook perfectly, and it would have reflected well on President Obama's ability to appreciate talent.

I feel a deep sense of relief that you share similar thoughts as I do. I'm hardly a good poet myself, but I don't have to be a poet in order to judge whether poems are good or bad. I am quite sufficiently exposed to the field of poetry, and Professor Alexander is no doubt one of the very worst poets I've ever come across.

1:40 AM  
Blogger Miao said...

Sorry, I just found out that Gunn has passed away. But, like you said, surely there are much better poets out there.

2:11 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Here, here, Miao!

Yes, thank you for your strong agreement.

You made the most wonderful error, that actually is profound: "prose broken into lies..." That was very apt and funny.

I think, given the astonishing lack of merit in her poem and its reading that anyone who defends her, has some kind of other agenda that goes beyond the immediate poem. It was, as you note, quite the worst poem reading I have ever heard.

Best wishes.

7:25 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

No, Miao, you were right the first time. A dead poet would have done a better job and been less perturbing to watch. I would have preferred Thom Gunn in his present state, to Alexander in hers.

You are right. Finding a better poet would not have been difficult.

7:27 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

You are very kind, Shannon. It is a pity that she is likely to be judged, primarily, on one very poor work - but then, it wasn't difficult to find another poor work of hers, was it?

Perhaps she is a very uneven poet - a writer given to good moments interspersed with shockingly awful ones. Perhaps the reputation has been built on a few good moments - and the rest was overlooked.

I think she cannot have considered the immmense responsibility and importance of the moment she was called upon to perform at. Her reading should have been as polished as innumerable hours of private practice could make it. She should have hired, perhaps, an acting coach for the delivery. Then, the poem itself, should, at the very least, have been highly competent work, created out of her best effort, even if she is not, anymore, at her peak. If this was her best effort then, truly, she is not much of a poet after all. It was uninteresting and prosaic (in both senses of the word) - it lacked imagination and wonder, which both should have been on show at such epoch changing moment.

Thanks for your comment Shannon.

7:32 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

A bit of research turned up the information that she was the 2007 recipient (the first to be awarded actually) of the Jackson Poetry Prize. The $50,000 prize honors an American poet of exceptional talent who has published at least one book of recognized literary but has not yet received major national acclaim, according to the blurb on the site concerned.

I note a potential contradiction in terms. It is possible, in many cases, that one of the reasons a poet has not received major national acclaim is that they are not of exceptional talent. It could prove to be difficult to isolate those of exceptional talent, who are also unremarked. Perhaps, in many cases, they are unremarked for a good reason.

Jeff Shotts, Poetry Editor at Graywolf Press said of the award: "This prize is a sign of support for her future work, which is sure to astonish and delight.”

That was in 2007.

10:42 AM  
Blogger Miao said...

Oops, I meant 'prose broken into lines'. Accidentally left out the 'n', but, as you said, it was probably still an apt expression.

7:30 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Most apt!

7:33 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

This poem was typical of the modern university educated politically liberal poet.

Apparently, we are expected to accept regurgitated ideas, rhythms and images from the great poets of the past as though they are something wonderful and new. Well, they were wonderful when they were original and when their poetic execution made sense. Now, this Alexander woman has made a hash of it. This is an embarrassment for America.

I have spent a lot of time in different colleges and universities in recent years and I have seen this crap everywhere. One of these days we are going to have to wake up and see that a person who is able to string words together is not a writer or a poet. A person who memorizes the days lesson and graduates at the top of their class because they are the best at regurgitating is not a genius.

It takes both creative discipline and genius to be a poet.

Elizabeth Alexander has neither!

And, to the person who said we should make a distinction between Elizabeth Alexander the poet and Elizabeth Alexander the academic, you should know for future reference that a poet's art is their life. I'm sorry, but there can be no distinction made.

2:23 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you for your understanding of American academia and the "poetry" that is written.

Your words call to mind my own experience of academia (at Cambridge) and the pervasive antipathy I felt there towards those who were capable of originality. There is something profoundly wrong with academia...something which suggests that the enterprise itself is misconceived. It is not just poetry that is questionable: much that comes out of universities (such as graduating students) does not fulfil my idealized expectations of them.

Thanks for your comment.

7:51 AM  

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