A Closer Look At The Inaugural Poem

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I hope that, like me, you enjoyed Elizabeth Alexander's reading of her poem "Praise Song for the Day." I've gone back to read it again since the inauguration and, as with most good poetry, it rewards a closer look.

I wasn't aware, for example, that a praise song is one of the most widely used forms in African poetry. This choice of form was fitting for two reasons. First, it's a nod to Obama's Kenyan roots and the roots of all African Americans. Second--and this is important when you consider how private an art poetry has become--a praise song is traditionally a public poem. In West Africa, poets still perform praise songs at state functions. They traditionally celebrate a person (often a chieftain) or the gods, but Alexander decided against exalting Obama, choosing instead to praise what his inauguration represents.

Keeping her wide audience in mind, Alexander kept her words relatively simple--she probably didn't send you looking for the dictionary--but the poem's structure is pretty complex. There are images of repair like "darning a hole in a uniform" and "patching a tire" (and lord knows we have a lot of repairing to do), and road imagery, which speaks to the long path, from slavery through the civil rights movement, that African Americans took to inauguration day. But the poem's most important thread, I think, is one that celebrates the importance of words and speaking. It's enlightening to focus on this aspect as you move through the poem.

When the poem begins--by calling out our estrangement and emphasizing our differences--it focuses on speech:

"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."

People are "walking past each other...about to speak or speaking" and there is a Babelic quality to the world: "noise," a "din." The poem implies that we have difficulty communicating because we have our own "ancestors on our tongues." But the poem--like Obama himself--then starts to work against this estrangement. It begins calling out families, teachers, farmers, musicians, and the working class:

"A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky.
A teacher says, "Take out your pencils. Begin."

This act of naming is a symbolic act of bringing these different types of people together. One can't help but think of the inaugural crowd itself. Soon after, Alexander begins to argue for the power of words, offering that they aren't just the lifeblood of poetry, they're the lifeblood of our daily life:

"We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider"

She builds on this point with examples of powerful words, noting, especially, the power of the word "love":

"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,"

This focus on the power of words helps set up what, for me, is the most poignant moment of the poem--a clear statement which breaks through the "noise" Alexander described earlier.

"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."

Watching Alexander deliver this statement, which encapsulates the struggle of African Americans, was a powerful moment. It was also another demonstration of the power of words.

In closing, the poem asks that its audience (the country, really) "speak" new words to live by. Notice that the din of the first two stanzas is replaced by the clarity of "today's sharp sparkle" wherein "anything can be made, any sentence begun."

"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."

And so the change that Obama represents is embodied in the act of speaking. What we decide to say, of course, is up to us.

The entire poem can be found here.