Friday, January 23, 2009

Inaugural poetry (Part 2)

Fast forward to 2009, same date but different time. I had nostalgic feelings when Elizabeth Alexander read her poem at the Obama inauguration. Like the people in my office, I stayed up late again on the 20th to watch President Barack Obama's swearing in. When Alexander took the podium and read her poem, I remembered Maya Angelou fifteen years ago. In Oprah's words, it looked to me like a "full-circle moment".

Angelou and Alexander are two of only four poets to be asked to read their work at a presidential inauguration. The other two are Robert Frost who recited The Gift Outrightduring the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961 and Miller Williamns who read his poem Of History And Of Hopeduring Clinton's second swearing in in 1997.

Unlike the last three poets before her, Alexander has been overly criticized. Her poem has been called dull and too prosy. Myself, I liked it though. It was simple, full of imagery, and ended almost in the same note as Angelou's. In the end, her presence in the inauguration is what would matter most. Poetry at the US president's taking of the oath of office speaks volumes of the kind of person who will occupy the White House in the next four years.

So below is Alexander's poem, Praise Song For The Day:

Praise song for the day
A poem for Barack Obama's Presidential Inauguration
by Elizabeth Alexander

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.

1 comment:

Monica Roberts said...

When you have poets such as Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, and Staceyanne Chin, that'll make anybody look boring by comparison. ;)