Jan 21

The Inaugural Poem

Maybe it’s not a surprise that the Inaugural Poem “Praise Song for the Day” struck a chord with me when I heard Elizabeth Alexander recite her commissioned poem to mark today’s Presidential Inauguration. I do love poetry. And that is why I am particularly delighted to discover a new poet whose words touched me deeply in the Inaugural Poem for the swearing in of the President.

In order to learn more about this poet commissioned by President Obama to compose a poem to mark his inauguration, I brought home the book of children’s poetry co-authored by her and Marilyn Nelson from the library where I work. The title is Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies & Little Misses of Color. The book offers a study in sonnet and illustrations depicting an actual school in Connecticut for African-American girls in the mid-1800’s run by Quaker Prudence Crandall. The local white townspeople opposed the education of African American girls and attacked the school – poisoning the water, setting it on fire – ultimately they forced it to close. Here is a poignant excerpt from the book:

Work, she says, there is always work to do,
not in the name of self but in the name,
the water-clarity of what is right.
We crave radiance in this austere world,
light in the spiritual darkness.
Learning is the one perfect religion,
its path correct, narrow, certain, straight.
At its end it blossoms and billows
into vari-colored polyphony:
the sweet infinity of true knowledge. -Elizabeth Alexander

Besides this book I found on our library’s shelf today, Dr. Elizabeth Alexander is the author of four other books of poetry, most notably, American Sublime, a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize. Dr. Alexander is a professor at Yale University and will commence as the Chair of the African American Studies Department in July 2009.

One stanza in particular from today’s inaugural poem reverberates inside my heart:

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 preempt grievance.

Alexander speaks of love as the most powerful force, “the mightiest word” but she speaks of a type of love that is so vast it transcends the love of marriage, brother and sister, even of nation. The vastness of it “casts a widening pool of light.” And the words “preempt grievance” speak to love wholly unconditional.

For me this type of love is the language of the divine. Spiritual visionary Sri Chinmoy explicates just such a concept in his following utterance,

If we give someone something and then expect something in return because we feel that the person is under an obligation to give us something back, this is human love. But if we can do something unconditionally, that is divine love. In divine love we give for the sake of giving and we feel it is up to the other person whether he gives us something back or not. This is unconditional love; this is divine love. -Sri Chinmoy

Sri Chinmoy often contrasts human love from divine love in his writings and Alexander’s depiction of the power of love as defined by something far greater than human or even national ties hints at this less familiar type of love as well. Sri Chinmoy states, “If love means giving and becoming one with everything, with humanity and Divinity, then that is real love.”

President Obama’s oft-mentioned theme of hope speaks forth in the poem as well. Alexander writes, “We walk into that which we cannot yet see.” And towards the end of poem she adds, ‘In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun. On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp — praise song for walking forward in that light.” Returning to Sri Chinmoy’s limitless body of eloquent writings, he expresses these words on hope:

Hope is nothing but concealed power. Today’s hope turns into tomorrow’s actuality. Today’s dream is bound to be fulfilled in tomorrow’s reality. -Sri Chinmoy

Praise Song indeed for all these noble ideals expressed in verse, placing the value of art and culture front and center as a new administration begins a new chapter in American history. Watch Dr. Alexander deliver the inaugural poem:

Here is the complete transcript of the inaugural poem:

Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each others’ 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 someone 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 thy self.”

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 preempt grievance.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp — praise song for walking forward in that light.