Friday, January 23, 2009

Elizabeth Alexander's Inaugural Poem

Here is the original poem Elizabeth Alexander read at Obama's inauguration, downloaded from the Academy of American Poets website (

Praise Song for the Day
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.
Alexander's poem conveys a cluster of admirable sentiments: that even people performing ordinary tasks are worthy, that some have died doing their jobs, that love of others--even those unlike us--is praiseworthy, and that the day holds many possibilities. The poem ends on praise for "walking forward," but I'm afraid the poem is pedestrian in other ways as well. Despite several crisp, effective snapshots, the poem tries to be too encompassing, too inclusive--the perennial trap of commemorative verse.

None of the previous four inaugural poems have been especially memorable. At Kennedy's inauguration, Robert Frost intended to read "Dedication" but fortuitously couldn't see the text because of the sun's glare. So he recited from memory the far superior and appropriate poem, "The Gift Outright." "The Strength of Fields," James Dickey's poem for Jimmy Carter (read at the "inaugural gala" at Lincoln Center rather than at the inauguration itself) was not bad, though by no means one of his best. The contorted syntax and occasional obscurity of the language must have left the audience puzzled--though at his best, Dickey was a strong reader and might have brought it off by sheer force of personality.

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