In yesterday's post, I did an injustice to Elizabeth Alexander by posting the news transcript of her presidential-inauguration poem without its proper line breaks. Here is the poem typed out correctly. The line breaks demonstrate how eloquent the poem really is, and if you read it in prose (as in the transcript), much of the impact of the poem, and its beauty, is lost. In fact, I would add that the transcript damages the poem, and I added to that damage by posting the transcript yesterday. Read the poem below in its proper form. (I'm also including again the YouTube video of Alexander's performance so you can compare the poem as written with the poem as spoken by the poet.)
Praise Song for the DayMy sincerest apologies to you, Professor Alexander, for adding to the brouhaha about your poem. Having the poem in its proper form really enhances the experience of hearing it, and your performance is quite remarkable, Elizabeth (if I may), because you are clearly voicing (and voicing clearly) the plain speaking that both you and President Obama hold so dear. Despite what unfriendly commenters on various blogs and news venues have been saying about the poem, it is clear to me you are working to circumvent the esoteric qualities that many people not accustomed to verse point to in American poetry overall, and your poem's plain and clear speech is the source of its eloquence and beauty (as more friendly commenters have also emphasized). Congratulations on a lovely, apt poem. And thank you for striving to make poetry a part of everyday life in the entire world. Brava!by Elizabeth AlexanderEach day we go about our business,A Poem for Barack Obama's
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.
I am particularly moved by the reference to the "many [who] have died for this day." I would imagine that some people, perhaps many people, read this as a reference to African Americans and other people of color. I submit however that, although that understanding is of course important to acknowledge, this refers ultimately to all of us, all Americans who have died for and worked for freedom for everyone. The swearing-in of our first African American president is not a victory only for black people; it is a victory for all Americans, in fact all people across the world. Thank you, Elizabeth Alexander; thank you for this crucial lesson and this important poem.