Poet offers 'praise song' for inauguration day
NEW YORK (AP) -- Following the world's most awaited oration -- Presi-dent Obama's inaugural speech -- poet Elizabeth Alexander echoed the new leader's tribute to daily labor, his call for responsibility and his reminder of the sacrifices that made his election possible.
"Say it plain: that many have died for this day," Alexander, 46, said Tuesday during her brief reading, in which she also spoke out to the world about "love that casts a widening pool of light, love with no need to pre-empt grievance."
Alexander's recital at the National Mall in Washington culminated her own surprising journey, from academic and award-winning poet to a platform that only the tiniest number of her peers have been granted. She is just the fourth inaugural poet, following Robert Frost, Maya Angelou and Miller Williams.
The poem, titled "Praise Song for the Day: A Poem for Barack Obama's Presidential Inauguration," consists of 14, unrhymed three-line stanzas, and a one-line coda: "praise song for walking forward in that light." It will be re-leased as an $8 paperback, 32 pages, on Feb. 6 by publisher Graywolf Press with an announced 100,000 first print-ing, a veritable fairy tale for most poets, but not for an inaugural work. Angelou's "On the Pulse of the Morn-ing," recited in 1993 at President Clinton's inaugural, was a million seller.
Ceremonial poems, commissioned rather than inspired, rarely make for historic literature, but Alexander avoided direct references to political issues, current events or to Obama himself. Her poem was a grounded, non-topical summation and joining of minute details and infinite themes, connections that run through Ameri-can verse from Walt Whitman to William Carlos Williams, and through such Alexander works as "Fugue" and "A Poem for Nelson Mandela."
Alexander, wearing a bright red coat, delivering her poem in poised and determined style, offered a sketch of everyday work and interaction ("walking past each other, catching each other's eyes or not, about to speak or speaking"), and a Whitman-esque celebration of anonymous deeds:
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.
Like Miller Williams' "Of History and Hope" and Angelou's "On the Pulse of the Morning," Alexander narrated history as a hard, but hopeful progression, a long and difficult ques-tion answered best by love, love "beyond marital, filial, national." Just as the unthinkable has happened in the past, anything remains possible now:
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's reading was uneventful compared to the first inaugural poem, when Robert Frost, appearing in 1961 at the invitation of President Kennedy, couldn't make out the words of his text and recited from memory an older work, "The Gift Outright." Miller Williams, chosen to read in 1997 at Clinton's second swearing-in, had been the most recent inaugural poet.
Williams, watching from his home in Fayetteville, Ark., said Alexander had well completed the inaugural poet's task -- economy, simplicity, telling an American story with "some nicely surprising adjectives." He did have a minor criticism -- not with the poem, but with the presentation.
"I wish she had something after the resolution of the poem to let us know clearly that it was over," Williams said. "Had she read it in my living room, I would have said, 'Keep your voice up at the end, and nod to the audience and say, "Thank you," when it's over."'
Alexander, a professor of African American studies at Yale University, has published five books of poems -- not including the inaugural text -- and a book of essays, "The Black Interior." Before participating in history at the Mall, she witnessed it: She was just a baby when her parents brought her to the 1963 March on Washington.