The 2009 Inaugural Poet and Poem
(Photo is a TV shot from ABC News.)
Elizabeth Alexander is a poet, essayist, playwright, and teacher. She is a professor at Yale University and was a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University this year. She was chosen to write and deliver the inaugural poem, only the fourth poet to have this privilege.
Robert Frost recited his poem, one he had written in the 1940s, The Gift Outright , at the 1961 Inauguration of John F. Kennedy, Maya Angelou wrote and read The Rock Cries Out to Us Today at Bill Clinton’s Inauguration in 1993, and Miller Williams wrote and read Of History and Hope at Clinton’s Second Inauguration in 1997.
This is a transcription of Alexander’s poem, delivered at Barack Obama’s Inauguration, January 20, 2009. The poem will be available in a commemorative chapbook by Graywolf Press on February 6th.
It’s an interesting study to read the four inaugural poems as a collection. (Interesting, too, that two of the poems have the word bramble in them. Bramble? Not your ordinary kind of word, but definitely a poet’s word.)
Praise Song for the Day.
Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each others’ 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 someone 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 thy self.”
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 preempt grievance.
In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp — praise song for walking forward in that light.