The inauguration was a deeply emotional event on many levels: the sea of people of all colors and backgrounds, the prayers, the music (from Aretha to Yo-Yo). Oh, and then there’s that little thing about celebrating our nation’s first black president. I was moved by it all, but I was especially affected by Elizabeth Alexander’s inauguration poem, “Praise Song for the Day.” I’m not a poetry scholar, but I was struck by several lines from the poem, as well as Ms. Alexander’s beautiful recitation of her work. “We encounter each other in words,” the poet writes, “words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed; words to consider, reconsider.”
EbonyJet.com has a positive reflection on the poem. Ah, but poetry is a very subjective thing, which is why Ms. Alexander got a few negative reviews, too. Critics like this one and this one take Ms. Alexander to task for, among other things, being “too prosy.” This AP review gets in a few jabs while offering a brief history of the inaugural poem.
If you stuck around long enough to hear it, what did you think? Did you like it, or did it feel like she was trying too hard? Check out the text below and video above, if you missed it yesterday.
Praise Song for the Day
by Elizabeth Alexander
A Poem for Barack Obama’s Presidential Inauguration
Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other’s
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 some one 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 thyself,
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 pre-empt 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.