Much will be written about yesterday’s history-making inaugural of Barack Obama. Two-plus million people crammed the National Mall to celebrate what many believe will be a future brightened by new leadership and a call for political integrity.
One note, perhaps missed in the chilly 20-degree temperatures, was poet Elizabeth Alexander’s echo of the new President’s challenge for daily labor, responsibility and sacrifice in her poem titled “Praise Song for the Day.” She joins the tiniest number of peers-three others, Robert Frost, Maya Angelou and Miller Williams-as an inaugural poet. Her offering consisted of unrhymed three-line stanzas, and a one-line coda: “praise song for walking forward in that light.”
Such ceremonial poems rarely become the stuff of historic literature. But that’s not to say her poetic tapestry of small details and infinite themes should be overlooked. After all, who would not pause, if only for a moment, to reflect on her question: “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.”
A video is available here; the text follows…
Praise Song for the Day
by Elizabeth Alexander
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.