Talk about tough acts to follow.
Following the world's most awaited oration -- President Obama's inaugural speech -- poet and Yale professor 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 Tuesday 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 released as a book, 32 pages, on Feb. 6 by publisher Graywolf Press with an announced 100,000 first printing, a veritable fairy tale for most poets, but not for an inaugural work. Angelou's "On the Pulse of the Morning," 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 American verse from Walt Whitman to William Carlos Williams.
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 question answered best by love, love "beyond marital, filial, national." Just as the unthinkable has happened in the past, anything remains possible now:
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.
Praise Song for the Day
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.
Copyright © 2009 by Elizabeth Alexander. All rights reserved. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Saint Paul, Minnesota. A chapbook edition of Praise Song for the Day will be published on February 6, 2009.