While the crowds gather in Washington, I will admit this:
it is enough that it happened, more than enough that we see
him standing there shattering all our good excuses: no, not bliss,
not some balm over the wounds that still hurt, but it is enough
to say that we saw it happen, the thing we thought wouldn’t,
and we did it even if we did not want to do it.
Kwame Dawes, “New Day”
Inaugural poetry disappoints. Let’s be honest. When the poet speaks — so soon after the thunderous applause of the presidential address — we are never quite as prepared as we should be to pause for creative reflection.
Poems, as we all know, compel us to turn our gaze inward, much like invocations and benedictions. But while prayers invoke the call to a higher power, poems like the one written by Elizabeth Alexander for Barack Obama require a response from their listeners. And there are millions of us, each with our own expectations about what, in this powerful moment, poetry can and should do.
Consider the rocky precedent set by previous inaugural poets: The “Dedication” Robert Frost wrote (but couldn’t deliver) for John F. Kennedy’s inauguration reads like an American Civics lesson. Maya Angelou’s “On the Pulse of Morning” strives to reach outside of history and though it is more inclusive, her verse ultimately leaves me feeling disconnected. A strange sense of caution and doubt runs through Miller Williams’ “Of History and Hope” which was written (like Angelou’s poem) for Bill Clinton’s inauguration. Ultimately, each leaves a kind of syrupy aftertaste that is expected when someone declares America to be the Greatest Love of All.
So I’m not surprised that early reviews of Alexander’s “Praise Song for the Day” are mixed. WriteBlack has a post up about its critics, and there is sure to be a lively exchange when Ta-Nehisi Coates posts the poem for his Friday discussion. But compared to Frost, Angelou, and Williams, I find much to admire about Alexander’s verse. It combines abstract ideals and virtues with the lives of everyday people. Each time I read it, I see new insights that mark an optimistic start to Obama’s presidency. (Plus, she did a great job on The Colbert Report!)
But there is another inaugural poem that deserves our attention: “New Day” by Kwame Dawes. Published by The State newspaper in South Carolina where Dawes is a professor and poet-in-residence, “New Day” consists of eight sonnets that offer profound snapshots of our world.
Dawes begins with President Obama’s thoughts on January 1st, 2009 and ends with President Lincoln’s ruminations on January 1st, 1863. The poem reflects on Obama’s global heritage, his fatherlessness, his “cool,” and whether or not his presidency forces Americans to reconsider “all our good excuses.” My favorite section is called, “Palmetto.” Although it refers specifically to South Carolina, the passage captures the humble pride felt by so many black southerners who still live amidst the painful reminders of past injustice and cruelty.
Of course, my home has kept its promise to itself;
the one that made Eartha Kitt, Chubby Checker, Althea Gibson,
James Brown all pack their bags, clean out their shelves,
never to look back, not once. They found their homeless songs,
like people who have forgotten where their navel-strings
were buried. We kept the promise that made those who stayed, learn
to fight with the genius of silence, the subterfuge of rings
of secret flames held close to the heart, kindling the slow burn
of resistance. But good news: despite the final state count,
we know that the upheaval of all things still brought grace
here where pine trees bleed and palmettos suck up the brunt
of blows, and so we can now hum the quiet solace
of victory with a surreptitious shuffle, a quick, quick-step
for you, Smoking Joe, Dizzy, James, and Jesse, slide, slide, now step.
The newspaper’s website includes an amazing video of Carolina residents — black, white, children, preachers, politicians — reciting “New Day.” Listening to it, one gets the sense that Dawes composed his verse under considerably less pressure than Alexander, who had to follow President Obama before a crowd so big that it could be seen from space. Perhaps Dawes took advantage of this wide creative elbow room to speak more explicitly about our 44th president than others (I’ve noticed, for instance, that none of the previous inaugural poems mention the president by name).
No poem can be all things to all people. But I think that “New Day” speaks precisely and provocatively to us about a transformational moment in our history and it offers a lovely companion piece to Alexander’s “Praise Song for the Day.” You may also want to check out the inaugural poems that NPR commissioned from notable writers such as Suzan-Lori Parks, Gayle Danley, and Calvin Trillin. Nikki Giovanni even wrote what appears to be an inaugural rap. (Don’t say I didn’t warn you.) And did you know that Barack Obama, himself, has been known to write poetry?