Elizabeth Alexander wrote this poem, and read it at Barack Obama’s inauguration yesterday in Washington DC.

Praise Song for the Day

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.

By Elizabeth Alexander

for the inauguration of Barack Obama

published in the New York Times

No Responses to “Inaugural Poem by Elizabeth Alexander”

    • Kristina McDonald

      I think a lot of people still think of poetry exclusively as something structured and rhymed, like the color breakdown we heard from Reverend Lowery shortly afterward (which, don’t get me wrong, I also enjoyed). It was nice to hear a well-read and well-paced modern free verse poem included as part of such an important event.

  1. Robin Reagler

    Hi, Daniel. Thanks for your question.

    I have read Alexander’s work over the years and thought she was more intellectual and academic than other inaugural poets, so I came to it wondering if her poem would be accessible. Her poems tend to bring in African-American history that is not very widely known, for example, so they work better on the page than aloud.

    I felt that the poem she wrote was accessible. It fit nicely with Obama’s speech and the values that he represents. There are lines in poem that people are quoting, “love that casts a widening pool of light,” for instance.

    However Alexander does not belong to a world of poetry that valorizes performance. She’s an ivy league professor. She publishes books. I think the shortcoming, if there was one, was in this area. Especially in comparison to all the great orators on stage yesterday. The way she read the last line didn’t really FEEL like an ending. People didn’t realize it was time to applaud.

    That said, I feel like she was a good choice. I’m proud that we have a president who believes that poetry is important.

    But enough from me…what did you think?

  2. Daniel Klotz

    Robin, I think our opinions of the poem and the reading are actually similar. They way she read it, for instance, isn’t my favorite way for poets to read, but I’m used to it–and yet I know that many aren’t, and I fear it made poetry seem more aloof and ivory-tower than it is. I’m torn, because on the one hand I’m with you in being grateful that poetry was included in the first place. On the other hand, I feel like it’s the one time when poetry gets such a prominent place, and the opportunity was lost. It felt almost like choosing an “alternate” to represent the U.S. at the Olympics instead of Michael Phelps, you know?

  3. Willie Bernal

    I wander why in spite of the criticism I read and my stupidity to appreciate poetry; Elizabeth Alexanders inaugural poem touch me to the bones. We from the Third World is not so familiar in understanding deep rooted words and perhaps that’s the reason why so many among us appreciate it.


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