Tuesday, January 20, 2009

"Praise Song for the Day," by Elizabeth Alexander

(A transcription of today's Inaugural poem, as provided by the New York Times and CQ Transcription Service. I will be very interested to see where the line breaks fall in the final version, but in the meantime, I like the plainspeakingness, and the call to work, love, and hope.)

(Update: Susan Marie Swanson pointed out that the proper text of the poem, with line breaks, is here.)

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, anything can be made, any sentence begun.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp -- praise song for walking forward in that light.


  1. I love the ending of this. Especially when I can read it here. When she said it at the inaugeration, I felt that her voice was so stiff and robotic--nothing like the richness of Maya Angelou's.

    But my favorite line is this one:
    A teacher says, "Take out your pencils. Begin."

    I found this so sad and beautiful. That education is represented by mass testing instead of knowledge--but it is also a truth of America today.

  2. Interesting, Beth! I didn't think that line sad, or that it referred to standardized testing -- I pictured it as an injunction to write an essay, either for a test or for an assignment. I think I think this because the two images (the woman and son waiting for the bus, the farmer and the sky) that precede it are about exploration and creation and growth, and the line that follows is about the possibilities of words . . . Writing fits more naturally into those images than standardized testing for me.

    But the wonder of poetry is (as Tom Stoppard said) the simultaneous reduction of language and expansion of meaning, so if it means a test for you.

  3. (I meant to finish that comment with an ellipsis, so: . . . .)

  4. I thought the poem was horrible, which was disappointing because I love poetry. It's interesting to me that anyone liked it.

  5. I loved it. Plainspoken, surely, but it really moved me. I started to cry with the line about "building brick by brick". My father, dead these 30 years, was a NYC construction worker. I found that line in my heart.

  6. To leave things on a less negative note, these were two comments I liked today (with two more apt poems, I feel): Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish posted Langston Hughes "I, too, sing America" http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2009/01/poem-for-the-da.html
    Matthew Stibbe at Bad Language posted this:
    For me, Seamus Heaney put it best:

    History says, Don’t hope
    on this side of the grave.
    But then, once in a lifetime
    the longed for tidal wave
    of justice can rise up,
    and hope and history rhyme.


    I sum up her poem as "Someone is trying to write an inaugural poem, and failing."

  7. I adored the lines, "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."

    I'm so glad that someone was brave enough to say it-- that the greatest aid or boon to our nation-- to the world-- is not money or power or weaponry. It is the ability to love beyond the boundaries that we have set up between ourselves, it is the moment we remember that we belong to one another and not ourselves alone.

    Thanks for posting this. I can understand that it wasn't everyone's cup of tea-- nothing sweeping or dramatic in the cadence or delivery. But it seems fitting to remind ourselves that once the pomp of the day is over, we are still as powerful as we feel today.

  8. I did not like the poem when she was reading it -- or rather I did not like the way she read it, overly emphatic and heavy to my ear. (Which, given the occasion, is understandable!)

    But I quite love the final poem -- the call to come out of the noise of the everyday, to consider the power of words and song and the names of the dead, and how that power can be transmuted into action, particularly the action of love; and how we stand on the brink of an opportunity to enact that. The more I reread it, the more I'm moved and impressed.

    Sara Lewis Holmes also posted a wonderful poem for the day: http://saralewisholmes.blogspot.com/2009/01/certain-day.html

  9. I love the phrase:
    "In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun."
    It will make me take step when I afraid to put pen or pencil to paper.
    Although I take that bit of text out of context, I can take it and make it my own.
    New beginnings are always so uplifting. Here's to all new beginnings!

  10. Thanks for posting this--I admit I like it far better when I can read it than when I heard it. But I think it would be very difficult not to have stage fright if faced with 2 million live viewers and a worldwide audience on camera!!

  11. Cheryl--So true: the beauty of poetry is the diverse interpretation. I can totally see where your thoughts come from on this--but my knee-jerk reaction to standardized testing is still my strongest emotion to the line.

    Also, I think the setting of this poem influenced my interpretation (I just blogged about it, actually). Because she was reading this at the inauguration (and because I have a suspicious nature anyway) I was looking for a deeper (and inherently political) meaning to the poem. Unconsciously, I was looking for political commentary within the text--therefore, I noticed a lot more of the change theme, and thought that line (and a few others) were a reflection of the American people of the past 8 years moving on.

    However, had you handed this poem to me casually and I had had no idea that it was associated with politics, I think I would have had a much different, much more innocent reaction to the poem.

    It is interesting how one's own setting influences interpretation. I would love to know what someone who was strongly anti-Obama thought of the poem, given the context.

  12. I loved the bit about figuring-it-out at kitchen tables, because I could relate to it immediately. It's a common, everyday, family thing, and it (the phrase) rings true for any family, I think.

  13. Even as she was reading it yesterday, I was thinking, "I think I like this poem in spite of the delivery." Now that I can read it, I do really like it.

    I wish the delivery had been better, but I also know that I would certainly not have been able to speak in front of that many people. When NPR interviewed Elizabeth Alexander over the weekend, someone used the word "billion" when talking about the audience. I blame NPR for freaking her out.

  14. I watched the inauguration and was moved by every part of it. But my 11-year-old daughter, who watched at school, was underwhelmed by everything EXCEPT this poem.

    When she was telling me about her day, she said, "It was pretty boring. Just a bunch of people talking. But that poem. That was cool."

    I wish she could have appreciated the importance of what was going on a little better, but I was glad the poem stuck in her mind as a positive thing.

    Pat Zietlow Miller

  15. I loved the words: We encounter each other in words, words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed; words to consider, reconsider.

    I did not enjoy it on TV as much as when I read it.

  16. I agree about the delivery... why does poetry have to be read in a mannered voice?

    I like the poetry of Taylor Mali. "On What Teachers Make" or "The impotence of of proofreading"


  17. I was so glad that poetry was part of this big day.
    Did anyone see Elizabeth Alexander's interview with Stephen Colbert? Very entertaining!

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