Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Praise Song for the Day by Elizabeth Alexander

Via Brooklyn Arden via Newsweek.

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.

What are your thoughts on this?

Mine are these:

  • Because it is written for a political areana and because it was first revealed in an inaugeration, the words are inexplicably tied to politics for me. That was part of my problem with it yesterday--I was trying to be Hermione, sussing out a deeper meaning to the words. And it is true that there IS a deeper meaning here, that this is, as it was intended to be and presented to be, a political poem. This is a poem that is a reflection of the distrust of the last 4-8 years of presidency, a poem that sings out praise for the American people for persevering through that time, and a poem that promises...what else?...change.
  • Nevertheless, this is also an accurate (for the most part) portrayal of American attitude. Take this line: "A teacher says, 'Take out your pencils. Begin.'" This is, on the one hand, a part of a list of true American working spirit (the farmer, the music maker). But it is also a comment on the way education has turned in the past 12 years. With the No Child Left Behind Act (boo!hiss!), teaching has become more about tests than about education. I applaud Alexander for inserting this line--it shows the persevering spirit of education despite the "educational reforms" that equate to more testing.
  • And while the ending does call forth change--a mantra of Obama's--it also has an eternal quality to it. Yes, the poem is political, yes, it is intended for a controversial and political candidate and is, by its very nature, an artistic reflection of his politics. But the final message of the poem is simple and everlasting: love conquers all. And as cheesy as that is, as somewhat marred it is in the political areana--it is still true.
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