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Elizabeth Alexander's "Praise Song for the Day"
Elizabeth Alexander and Obama
Introduction and Text of Poem, "Praise Song for the Day"
On January 20, 2009, at the history-making inauguration of Barack Obama, Yale English professor, Elizabeth Alexander, delivered her piece, "Praise Song for the Day."
Widely panned by poets and critics alike, Elizabeth Alexander's piece features 14 unrimed tercets, with a single line finish.
(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")
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 rendering her poem at the inauguration
First Tercet: "Each day we go about our business"
The opening lines state a mundane fact; as people move through their day, they pass other people, sometimes looking at each other, sometimes speaking to each other.
Second Tercet: "All about us is noise. All about us is"
The second tercet declares, "All about us is noise," and then repeats. Into a city scene of people bustling about, suddenly "bramble" and "thorn" appear. The exaggeration of "each / one of our ancestors on our tongues," paints a strange, bloated image.
Third, Fourth, Fifth Tercet: "Someone is stitching up a hem, darning"
The third, fourth, and fifth tercets offer a list of Whitmanesque laborer-at-his/her-labor images. Instead of letting the images speak for themselves, however, as Whitman does, this poet finds it necessary to explain.
After presenting people at their various repairs, "stitching up a hem," "darning a hole," "patching a tire," the speaker tells the reader what s/he just read: those folks are "repairing the things in need of repair." The speaker then reports, "someone is trying to make music," "a woman and her son wait for the bus," and farmer evaluates the weather, while a teacher gives a test.
Sixth, Seventh Tercets: "We encounter each other in words, words"
The speaker reveals that the collective "we" are "encounter[ing] each other in words." The seventh tercet attempts to symbolize "dirt roads and highways" as barriers in service of overcoming distance.
Eight Tercet: "I know there's something better down the road"
Playing on the fabricated symbol of "roads," the speaker prosaically states that she knows "something [is] better down the down." Then she offers a juvenile remark about finding a safe place, followed by the line, "We walk into that which we cannot yet see," straining for profundity.
Ninth, Tenth Tercets: "Say it plain: that many have died for this day"
The speaker then commands herself, "Say it plain," implying that she had not been "plain," although her lines have offered mostly literal prose broken into lines to look like poetry.
In the ninth and tenth tercets, the speaker situates her historical, racial allusions: she wants to say plainly, "many have died for this day." She commands her listeners to "sing the name 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."
Eleventh Tercet: "Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day"
The eleventh tercet offers exclamations calling for a "praise song for struggle," as well as the piece's title, "praise song for the day." In addition, she calls for a "Praise song for every hand-lettered sign, / the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables." All those Obama signs deserve a praise- song; all the folks sitting around kitchen tables "figuring-it-out" that Obama will fix their finances deserve a praise-song.
Twelfth, Thirteenth Tercet: "Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself"
Tercets 12-14 are a nattering of professorial philosophy about love, masquerading as heart-felt profundity: "Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself / others by first do no harm," "What if the mightiest word is love?"
And just when the speaker begins to achieve genuine poetic value in the two strongest lines in the work, "Love beyond marital, filial, national, / love that casts a widening pool of light," she destroys the achievement with discord in the line, "love with no need to pre-empt grievance." Not pre-empting grievance allows grievance to worsen. The "widening pool of light" dries up in political posturing.
Fourteenth Tercet: "In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air"
The final tercet is unremarkable except that readers may hear an echo of the Clinton inaugural verse, Maya Angelou's "On the Pulse of the Morning," in the line, "On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp."
Final Line: "praise song for walking forward in that light."
The final line, standing orphaned, "praise song for walking forward in that light," solicits the question, which light? That "widening pool of light," one supposes—the one that was darkened by partisan incursion.
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes