Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Poetry Inaugural: Obama, "Praise Song for the Day," and Lowery's reading of James Weldon Johnson's "Lift Every Voice and Sing"

Elizabeth Alexander, the inaugural poet, had the unfortunate (and mistimed) task of reading after Barack Obama--himself of the poetic phrase and rousing intonations--and before Joseph Lowery's final prayer, which began with James Weldon Johnson's moving "Lift Every Voice and Sing." In the process of her reading, television crews cut to pictures of the masses filing away and out of the mall; it looked, quite simply, like the death of poetry. Alexander's poem was not and is not a miserable failure, but I hoped for more; her reading style, however, the "MFA style" of felt stilted and worlds away from the way in which we speak and speech. God love her--she had an impossible task. But poetry abounded in the words of that day. And could not be bounded by a single poem.

Praise Song for the Day, Praise Song for Struggle

by Elizabeth Alexander

Praise song for the day.

Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each others’
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.

Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky.
A teacher says, “Take out your pencils. Begin.”

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark
the will of someone and then others who said,
“I need to see what’s on the other side.

I know there’s something better down the road.”
We need to find a place where we are safe;
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain, that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,

picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
The figuring it out at kitchen tables.

Some live by “Love thy neighbor as thy self.”
Others by “first do no harm,” or “take no more
than you need.” What if the mightiest word is love?

Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to preempt grievance.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp —

praise song for walking forward in that light.

—transcribed from the Presidential inauguration ceremony, January 20, 2009
© 2009, Elizabeth Alexander

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I didnt really enjoy the poem so much, the pastor's speech was more interesting.