Two years ago today, Barack Obama was inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States. I remember waking up at 2 or 3 in the morning to watch it live on the internet. That freezing January day was on the whole much less elevated, much less elegant, than the November night he won the vote, but it was nonetheless momentous. I was particularly excited about the commissioned poem; delighted that poems could still be commissioned for state occasions, delighted with the kind of president who would commission one. But when it came I was disappointed. Probably, not unlike Obama's presidency, no matter how good it was it could not fulfill the expectations it created, but hearing it read that day by its author Elizabeth Alexander I found it uninspiring, falling short of the grandeur of that moment.
However, reading it again now I think it has a great deal of merit, and indeed has said something true and hopeful about America - something America seems to have forgotten in the intervening two years. Race is undoubtedly present but unspoken, merged in a common past of striving and dreaming. It speaks of a creative humility and carried history that seem lost in the clamour for tax cuts and razor wire. It speaks of love as the abiding American thing. It speaks of articulation as a way of relating - something else that seems lost. Instead of speaking, there is shouting. Two years on, there is scorn instead of praise.
Praise Song for the Day
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.