Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Reaction to Inaugural Poem

On Tuesday I joined a host of others from my office and a couple of individuals from other departments in our conference room where all eyes and the TV set were tuned into the Inauguration of our 44th President of the United States. There was a keen respect by all for what was happening before our eyes.

When the President had finished his address and the podium was handed to Elizabeth Alexander, the poet chosen by the President to offer a poem written specifically for the occasion, a significant portion of those in the conference room rose and left amid groans at the mention of the word poem. I suppose I should not be at all surprised by this reaction, but what was more disturbing was the fact that those who remained largely talked over the reading.  At one point I sensed that only myself and one other individual were actually listening. But at some point, the party of the second part (I being the first)  said aloud, "What? Oh wow, this is bad." I was difficult for me to even attempt to enjoy the remainder of the reading.

When the room had cleared, I had to admit, the talking over the poem had made it difficult to potentially enjoy or at least appreciate the poem. What I recalled hearing of it actually impressed me more that I thought it might, but sadly I felt I needed to see the poem in print for myself and re-read it to really conclude anything about it.

Later in the afternoon, I approached the individual who expressed the feeling that the poem was bad and asked her what she heard. I was not surprised to learn she could not recall much of what was actually said. She did tell me that she though Ms. Alexander had jotted it down that very morning before the event.

I have wondered if others have had feedback from non-poets that they have talked with. Please share your stories in the comments.

And for the sake of everyone who has not seen/heard it, or like myself needed to see it again, here it is....

Praise Song for the Day
A Poem for Barack Obama’s Presidential Inauguration

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.

Copyright © 2009 by Elizabeth Alexander. All rights reserved. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Saint Paul, Minnesota. A chapbook edition of Praise Song for the Day will be published on February 6, 2009

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