Posts Tagged ‘elizabeth alexander’

The Inaugural Poem You Haven’t Heard


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”
the-american-mastodon

Seriously, Dr. Angelou: The Mastodon?

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.

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Alexander

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.

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Take A Break, People!

MLK, Jr. Taking a Well-Deserved Break

MLK, Jr. Taking a Well-Deserved Break

Plenty of well-meaning voices will tell us in the days to come that Barack Obama’s presidential victory, while historic and worthy of praise, means that the work of racial justice and equality has only just begun. To guard against complacency, the watchful and wounded will be full of meaningful warnings, counseling caution, and with the best of intentions, assure us that we have not yet reached the Promised Land.

After all, where would we be without the freedom fighters who refused to cross one item off our nation’s “to do” list without adding another? The alarming rates of poverty, income and health disparities, hate crimes, illiteracy, and sexual discrimination – the forces of tyranny never stop, so why should we? It makes sense that our guardians would expose the naivete of proclaiming this a “Post-Racial America” – the odd new catchphrase that covers up more than it conveys. Fair enough.

But there should also be time to take a step back and rejoice in the victories, small and large. Perhaps this moment is what King glimpsed on the mountaintop, perhaps not. We’ll never know if we don’t allow ourselves the opportunity to enjoy the view. So take a break, people!

Celebrate the very real power of your voice and your vote to express our highest ideals. Get to know the gifted poet, Elizabeth Alexander, who will deliver a poem in honor of Obama’s presidential inauguration. (And give thanks for the unexpected miracles, like a quick-thinking pilot who can crash land a plane of over 150 people in the Hudson River without losing a single soul.)

When I listen to the humbling voices of the elders and warriors still among us, one thing is clear: our Biggest Dreams can and do, in fact, come true. And if we don’t believe that, then what exactly have we been fighting for all this time? So take just a moment to relax, to reflect on what we’ve accomplished, and to gather your strength…for tomorrow.

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