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Posted by on Jan 22, 2009 in At TMV | 25 comments

Elizabeth Alexander: The Inaugural Poem at Obama’s Swearing In

Elizabeth Alexander read her poem at Barack Obama’s inaugural. I’ve tracked down a written version and put it at the end of this article for you… so you can see her line breaks…

Remember, for those who are poetry-phobic from creepy experiences with non-understandable poetry forced onto them in highschool… though you can measure most poetic metre with an electronic slide rule, the heart of most poetry is far more simple…

Poetry is most often a glimpsing through a window into someone’s thoughts about something… peering through a portal to see a scene from life go by… described by someone who sometimes sees differently than we do, but sometimes just sees as we do and has a way of saying it all that calms, heals, thrills, elucidates, calls up a mystery of life, in some sense… satisfies a personal something in the psyche.

So, often, how one reads a poem on the page (to oneself). and the way an author might read the same poem aloud, may be two completely different experiences.

It appears this duality was so yesterday, and leaks into today too, with thousands of online comments criticising Miss Alexander’s way of reading her poem at the inaugural.

Many are saying she might as well have been saying a speech in prose. There’s much criticism of the poem itself for various reasons. There are also those who loved the poem and the performance, or one or the other.

With the arts I think, just my two cents’ worth, there can be no definitive final opinion about worth or not worth. Perhaps we can only be definitive about personal pleasure, or not pleasure. Understanding, or not understanding. Interest or not interest. Remembering something important, or not. Sensation, or not sensation. Useful, or not useful. Causing memory, or not. Learning, or not. On and on.

Oh sure, people can insist they alone know the real truth of utter perfection of whatever artful effort, but I once belonged to a flamenco/cantaora forum in which people would argue over the first note of a soleá which, according to some, must follow a rule that is written in flaming lead by God Itself so that the opening must be played in the “key of A Phrygian, or else. Ay!

The forum commenters tore into the flamenco music, the singers, the dancers, the guitarists, the dressmakers, the everything… atomizing every little finger move, knocking down every tremolo, and claiming ugliness in this one and peerless beauty in that one …. until a lot like the tigers in the old pc/non pc tale ‘black sambo’ they ran round and round the tree til their conversations all turned to predictable mush.

And in the meantime, there was little passion given to the fabulous spectacle of the dance; it’d all been poured into vitriol and righteous assertion, instead.

I dont think beauty is in the eye of the beholder. From listening to people’s dreams and psyches all these years, I think it is more complex than that.

I think it’s fine for us all to say what we like or dont, what we prefer… but there’s far more meaning to which art pieces a person is drawn to… this having a psychological basis, perhaps even biological, certainly often spiritual… there’s far more to what one is drawn to… than mere sense about whether a poem or a painting is good or not.

What we are drawn to, what we innately embrace or learn to love, can also signal us strongly about which pack we belong to… via what the pack loves and what leaves the pack puzzled or unmoved.

So, I believe for the most part that trying to masticate poets, painters, dancers, etc., with all the brimstone and invective one can muster … ought really be reserved for the true demons of this world.

It takes little courage to attack a poet. It takes cojones o ovarios to attack true evil. I’d rather save my vials of croc bile and squid ink to attempt to beard the real demons.

As a poet, I can barely imagine how difficult it would be to write a ceremonial poem on demand (er, by invitation), and to stand before a zillion ka-jillion people in the icy cold (which definitely affects the voice negatively), following Barack, an often gifted orator, (sort of like being the band after The Rolling Stones performs) and somehow manage not to look like Reepacheep– the mouse in C. S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles– doggedly and passionately waving a sword of courage that is actually only the size of a toothpick.

That Miss Alexander even got up on the dais without either going into sudden glassy-eyed trance, or falling down from nervous-knees… is certainly a ‘thank God for small mercies’ moment.

Here is Miss Alexander’s poem. It is called Praise Song For The Day.


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.

©Elizabeth Alexander 2009, All Rights Reserved.