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Elizabeth Alexander's inaugural poem. I keep thinking back to it and I don't quite know what to make of it. It seemed so cool and dispassionate, and she read it in a halting and bracing manner that made me wonder if she was a better poet in writing than speaking. But, before rushing to criticize it I went back and read it again and stopped to think about her intentions in creating the poem.

I found that, in many ways, the tone of her poem was similar to President Obama's address. Both were halting, without sentimentality, intellectual, focused on possibility, but aware of harsh realities.

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,

It is just as terrifying as it is exciting. I thought Obama did an excellent job conveying the hard work that's ahead of us in his address. I think he worked hard to drain some of the giddy elation from that day and help us to wake up and think about the hard task ahead. Alexander's poem fit right in with this message. Perhaps I was disappointed because I was waiting for a message of pure joy like the benediction of Rev. Lowery. Or maybe I had the bad taste from Rick Warren's exclusive, Christians-only message still in my mouth. But, looking back, I find the poem pitch-perfect.  

You see some of the time I get tired of all of the images of older black folks weeping with joy, and little black boys "finally inspired." It's not that I don't want this to happen, but solving the issues of race is not that simple. Some of the time it feels like we're being put on display to assuage the consciences of a guilty country. Guilt is not productive, it's masturbatory.

My heart was more in the place of Alexander and Obama-- cool and just a little tense. Alexander described the entire country in a series of snapshots-- she described how fragmented we are as a nation and it shows how difficult the task of working together will be.  I think the difference in perspective is related to age. Lowery, is simply amazed that this day ever came-- but the younger people like Alexander are gratified, true, but they can more clearly see this isn't the end-- there's still a long way to go. And I'm not just speaking about issues of race, but also gender equality, and homophobia.

It's not a day for weeping but for looking calmly and rationally to the future and hoping we can make it. Hoping we can fit all of the very different Americas together into a united whole.

Text of Praise Song for the Day

Originally posted to futurebird on Fri Jan 23, 2009 at 07:52 AM PST.

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Comment Preferences

    •  Honestly (0+ / 0-)

      I think you have a point, and I think the poem is well written, but I can only conclude that she is not very good are spoken delivery.  I don't know anyone who thought the reading itself was good.  That's okay because not every writer also has that skill, but I can't pretend that's not obviously the case.

      Your political compass Economic Left/Right: -6.50 Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -6.67

      by bythesea on Fri Jan 23, 2009 at 08:25:51 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Wonderful analysis... (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Gorette, a poet at heart, futurebird

      ...and one that makes me appreciate the poem even more (and I DID appreciate it when it was first delivered).  Some of us aren't moved by or to mawkishness or pathos around this election (and if we are, we can also be moved by analysis and reason).  It is a wonderful day, that Americans can celebrate the election of our President -- THIS President.  But, as he reminds us, the most ordinary of us will need still to get up, go to work, figure out the budget, and worry about children's education.  Stark beauty, this poem had.  

  •  I'm not really a lover of poetry.... (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Lujane, futurebird, puffmeister

    but your interpretation is interesting.  I liked reading it.

    Do you know what "cheese in my pants" means?

    by David Kroning on Fri Jan 23, 2009 at 07:55:43 AM PST

  •  It was a bit surprising (9+ / 0-)

    I think most people thought she'd go for the soaring optimism of the day and essentially play a trumpet.  She wrote a poem worth reading and thinking about.  

    "The Bush crimes must be prosecuted. The very idea of rule of law demands it. And real consequences await in the next round of jingoism and fear."

    by Sun dog on Fri Jan 23, 2009 at 07:59:53 AM PST

  •  thoughtful diary - and I agree (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Gorette, futurebird, David Kroning, etbnc

    a hard edged but ultimately loving description of so many of us found in her words...

    And the deliberate pace of her delivery made me listen that much more closely.

    We will restore science to its rightful place....We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil .... All this we can do. And all this we will do.

    by puffmeister on Fri Jan 23, 2009 at 08:01:06 AM PST

  •  The poem itself was pragmatic, not symbolic (8+ / 0-)

    It was realism, not idealism. I found it appropriately stark, focusing on the everyday life of people and the nameless working folks who built this country and now have been betrayed.

  •  I was side tracked by the camera cutaways (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Gorette, futurebird

    to people leaving.  But her delivery was a bit off for me.  It seemed a poem of timid requests and  suggestions.  i couldn't quite paint a picture or conjure an emotion to her words, but I was sure she was saying something worthy.

    Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions

    by publicv on Fri Jan 23, 2009 at 08:11:07 AM PST

  •  I really liked it. What struck me most (6+ / 0-)

    was her insistence on the work of ordinary people, all of us, in making and remaking the world. Although Obama's speech had what I thought was an unfortunate line about laziness (lay off that Puritan b.s. just for once please, life is not ALL about bustin' your butt), he too insisted--and rather eloquently--on the shared task. Now if we can just get poor people in on some of the rewards. . .

  •  i loved the poem (6+ / 0-)

    don't understand all the criticism of it.

    loved the speech too.

    i guess Alexander and Obama were both speaking to me.

    Politics is like driving. To go backward, put it in R. To go forward, put it in D.
    President Barack Obama. At last.

    by TrueBlueMajority on Fri Jan 23, 2009 at 08:13:24 AM PST

    •  I liked the poem to (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      but I didn't think her delivery was good.

      Your political compass Economic Left/Right: -6.50 Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -6.67

      by bythesea on Fri Jan 23, 2009 at 08:26:57 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  I liked them both as well (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Generally speaking, I prefer to hear a poem rather than read it. I'm kind of literal-minded, so hearing poetry allows me to appreciate more thoroughly than reading normally does.

      I thought her delivery was a bit stilted and I got a little worried when she couldn't get her page turned over.  And I got a little hung up on her phrase, "praise song for ..." wondering whether she was giving a direction to praise song or using it as one word, i.e., this poem is a praisesong for ...  See, that's that literal-mindedness that gets in my way.

      All that said, however, I liked the poem a lot and in some ways, stilted though it was, her deliberateness was helpful in really hearing what she said.  I sort of think, too, it's probably not that her delivery was so much stilted as her voice isn't hugely expressive.

  •  I watched it with several people (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    bythesea, miss SPED, fhamme

    it left us all baffled.

  •  I'm about as white as you can get (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Catte Nappe, puffmeister

    ...the images of older black folks weeping with joy...

    But when they quoted MLK, I wept. His "day" on Monday was very emotional for me, but then I cry every time I hear his "I have a dream". Don't know why, it just does. I guess having lived through those times and working since then for some type of justice and not seeing enough, Monday and Tuesday were just overwhelming.

    After the oath was administered, I went outside and at the top of my lungs shouted, "Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty we're free at last!"

    Later, I mooned the TV when Bush got on the chopper.

    It was a pretty damn fine day.

    The reason people don't learn from the past, is because the past was a repetitious lie to begin with. Mike Hastie U.S. Army Medic Vietnam 1970-71

    by BOHICA on Fri Jan 23, 2009 at 08:14:37 AM PST

  •  I just didn't get it (0+ / 0-)

    I’m with all of those who simply didn’t get the poetry portion of the ceremony.  I relish my redneck raising, but every once in a while I do enjoy a little culture.  Yet for me, this poem just didn’t fit.

    First was its placement in the program.  The address by President Obama was the climax of the moment.  After the speech maybe a "go and peace be with you" prayer might be in order but really after the speech it was time to say goodbye.  To me the poem was an unwanted delay, an interruption in the ceremony.

    While I prefer a little Merle, Waylan or Willie, I enjoyed the classical music portion.  Haunting remembrances of an old time shaker hymn seemed perfect for the occasion.  

    The Poetry: not so much.  

    But then again, the importance of this ranks right up there with dress designers.

  •  reminded me of Billy Collins (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    All I know of former Poet Laureate Billy Collins' work is what I heard him read on Garrison Keillor's radio show a while back. I liked what I heard.

    Alexander's poem and her delivery reminded me of Collins when I heard him on the radio.

    I, too, thought her imagery mirrored Obama's speech. Coincidence or careful planning?

  •  I really liked the poem, but (0+ / 0-)

    didn't like how she read/delivered it.

    My mother thought she was awful.

  •  Poetry sometimes requires (5+ / 0-)

    the kind of attention that an inaugural crowd just doesn't have; I recall the same kind of reaction when Robert Frost read his poem for Kennedy, and there the poet was a well established, almost legendary figure.

    so her poem will sit with us and percolate through the occasional post here, and elsewhere, and it's resonance in the opinion of others is it's greatest gift.

    All of you bring a little to the table, in fragments we share, and in doing so begin the long process of creating a whole which is greater than the sum of it's parts.

    best to all this year,

    •  I hope so. (0+ / 0-)

      so her poem will sit with us and percolate through the occasional post here, and elsewhere, and it's resonance in the opinion of others is it's greatest gift.

      I recently went back and read Maya Angelou's poem for Clinton's first term. I was just a little girl then, but seeing Maya Angelou, really made me start thinking about poetry more-- it was huge moment in my young life.


  •  I loved the poem. So there. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    futurebird, page394

    It has a beautiful meaning and feeling to it. Perhaps she did not convey it, but at that point in the ceremony it would be hard for anyone to do. I found it appropriate and gorgeous.

    What struck me first was:

    All about us is noise. All about us is
    noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
    one of our ancestors on our tongues

    "Ancestors on our tongues........" --couldn't get over a graphic image of that for a while! Heh. But an apt way to put it. Sometimes our dialects are barriers. And there is SO much noise, so much talking that is just din and thorn that gets in the way of healthy discourse.

    I liked the image of people all over working and yearning for something better, for safety.

    And I found this part so poignant, yet strong, especially coming right after MLK day.

    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...

    The last part was what got me, and I felt right away that it related to the Obamas, that they are examples of what is referred to in the Bible as "walking in the light," or "walking in love."

    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.

    "the brink... the brim... the cusp..." For some reason I love the sound of that line and found it a good image of the day.

  •  I liked the poem (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    marina, futurebird, etbnc

    I like it better on reading it than I did on hearing it. I don't know that it was just that her delivery was not great. I think a really "meaty, sink your teeth into it" poem needs multiple readings/hearings to get everything out of it. I'll want to read it some more, have time to pause and consider various images and how they fit into the whole.

  •  Thank you for your thoughtful analysis (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Gorette, futurebird, etbnc

    I disagree only with your point about fragmentedness. To the contrary, I found her illustrations of workers in daily life to be the thread of commonality among virtually all who are born not to wealth but to labor. To me this brings us together in our appreciation for each other's work, each other's lives.

    I didn't care for her delivery at first, but after considering her right to poetic license, decided that her punchy, forceful delivery was just what was needed to get her message through.

    Just MO.

  •  At the time it did not speak to my condition; (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    miss SPED

    I have already forgotten it.  

  •  Hated It (0+ / 0-)

    Hated her other stuff I read too.  How long is her term?  Hopefully she just fades back into obscurity or moves to Alaska.

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