Obama Poet: ‘They Stopped and They Listened'

Poet Elizabeth Alexander had a daunting task at Tuesday's historic inauguration -- she not only had to follow President Obama's speech, but also wanted to get an excited, million-plus crowd to reflect on the day.

Some in the crowd who had stood in the cold for hours were starting to leave. Following an actress friend's advice, Alexander inhaled deeply, looked out at the throngs and took her time as she began to read her poem.

Many strangers approached her later, citing different lines that touched them and captured the day America swore in its first black president.

"I was told by many that when they heard the poem, they stopped and they listened," Alexander said Wednesday. "I think for many, it did do what I want poems to do -- to still the moment. That's a dream for me, to think it's not so much my poem but that a poem provided that moment, that I know is what poems do."

Alexander's poem paid tribute to daily labor, Obama's 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 at the National Mall in Washington.

Alexander, who wore a bright red coat, was just the fourth inaugural poet, following Robert Frost, Maya Angelou and Miller Williams.

"It was a privilege beyond belief and the experience of a lifetime," Alexander said.

Alexander, a Yale professor of African-American studies, was just a baby when her parents took her in a stroller to the civil rights march on Washington in 1963 when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his historic "I Have a Dream" speech.

Her father, a presidential civil rights adviser and secretary of the Army, sat on the stage Tuesday to listen to his daughter and wore a button from that day calling for jobs, peace and freedom over a white and black handshake.

"That is part of what made the whole experience beyond words for me," Alexander said. "You felt the weight of what it all meant."

Alexander made eye contact with Obama, but said she didn't get a chance to talk to him.

Alexander, a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2005 for her collection "American Sublime," is friends with Obama from her days when they both were on the faculty at the University of Chicago in the 1990s.

Her 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 an $8 paperback of 32 pages on Feb. 6 by publisher Graywolf Press with an announced 100,000 first printing.

Angelou's "On the Pulse of the Morning," recited in 1993 at President Clinton's inaugural, was a million-seller.

So far, response to Alexander's poem has been far milder than to Angelou's. As of Wednesday, "Praise Song" ranked No. 236 on Amazon.com.

Alexander, whose poem drew praise and criticism, declined to comment on the reviews.

Alexander has published five books of poems -- not including the inaugural text -- and a book of essays, "The Black Interior."

Praise Song for the Day

A Poem for Barack Obama’s Presidential Inauguration

Elizabeth Alexander

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.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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