When I said Ladies and gentlemen, this concludes our series on National Poetry Month.
I’ve got something else for you.
On today’s Tell Me More on NPR, Michel Martin interviewed poet Elizabeth Alexander, professor of African-American studies at Yale University, who delivered the poem below at President Obama’s January 2009 inauguration.
The segment reminded me of what poetry means to me. As Martin and Alexander discussed taking poetry out of the ivory tower and into the hearts and minds of ordinary people, I began to think of what language has meant to me throughout my life. Oddly enough, I can’t put it into words.
I feel regret that more people are afraid of poetry. Perhaps it’s that we are forced to study Blake and Shakespeare in school, when most are really not ready to understand either the meaning or the language. This is enough to put most off for life. I wish instead everyone were educated like my daughter, who was taught that words were wonderful gifts, to be molded and played with like clay, used for immediate purpose, joyfully. She has never been intimidated by words, by poetry. We should all be so lucky.
So I present to you a real American poet, unintimidated by the word, spoken or written, who, on a day no one ever thought would come, stood before the world and spoke our words.
Praise Song for the Day
by Elizabeth Alexander
A Poem for Barack Obama’s Presidential Inauguration
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.
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.
© 2009 enlightened horsemanship through touch
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