Give birth again to the dream

Like Beyonce, Richard Blanco’s poem for Obama’s second inauguration got mixed reviews, but I’m ranged with those who liked it. It was simple and heartwarming, and it comprehended much that was unsaid in its arcs and gestures. It had lovely lines like this one “We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight / of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always—home,” and sweet images of America’s streets and towns and classrooms and backyards abuzz with life. One of its naysayers was The Guardian’s Carol Rumens, who concluded that “the biggest problem with writing a public poem is that crude simplifications are forced on a reluctant poet.” I think it’s a mistake to assume simplifications are crude. Simplifications are the stuff of poetry, and poetry is the stuff of public occasion. If anything, poetry fits public utterance better than prose, since it can smooth without blunting the rough edges of history; it can exhume pain from experience and make it holy; it can be subversive without being threatening; it can sound authentically hopeful. More so than the best speech, poetry can glide clear of cynicism. Beyond the last double-tongued word of oratory, poetry can refresh the promise of language itself, and therefore of the world.

This is what the best inaugural poems can do, and Blanco’s was no exception. Indeed it was similar, in tone and theme, to both Elizabeth Alexander’s “Praise Song for the Day” (which I wrote about a couple of years ago) and Maya Angelou’s poem for Clinton’s first inaugural in 1993 (which I’ve mentioned in passing). All three poems are about struggle, unity, love, fulfillment of the American dream in its waking world. But there is a progression, from Angelou’s grand, primal evocation of time immemorial, through Alexander’s moral yearning toward history, to Blanco’s humble memorial to the diurnal. Are inaugural poems a good way to measure the movement of the zeitgeist? And if so, do these three line up to show a loss of ambition toward immortality? A diminishing of the dream? I don’t know. But of the three, on reflection I like Angelou’s best, and I have a feeling it will wear better than the others, as eternity tends to do. Here it is.

A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
Marked the mastodon.

The dinosaur, who left dry tokens
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.

But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow.

I will give you no more hiding place down here.

You, created only a little lower than
The angels, have crouched too long in
The bruising darkness,
Have lain too long
Face down in ignorance.

Your mouths spilling words
Armed for slaughter.

The Rock cries out today, you may stand on me,
But do not hide your face.

Across the wall of the world,
A River sings a beautiful song,
Come rest here by my side.

Each of you a bordered country,
Delicate and strangely made proud,
Yet thrusting perpetually under siege.

Your armed struggles for profit
Have left collars of waste upon
My shore, currents of debris upon my breast.

Yet, today I call you to my riverside,
If you will study war no more. Come,

Clad in peace and I will sing the songs
The Creator gave to me when I and the
Tree and the stone were one.

Before cynicism was a bloody sear across your
Brow and when you yet knew you still
Knew nothing.

The River sings and sings on.

There is a true yearning to respond to
The singing River and the wise Rock.

So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew
The African and Native American, the Sioux,
The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek
The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheikh,
The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
The privileged, the homeless, the Teacher.
They hear. They all hear
The speaking of the Tree.

Today, the first and last of every Tree
Speaks to humankind. Come to me, here beside the River.

Plant yourself beside me, here beside the River.

Each of you, descendant of some passed
On traveller, has been paid for.

You, who gave me my first name, you
Pawnee, Apache and Seneca, you
Cherokee Nation, who rested with me, then
Forced on bloody feet, left me to the employment of
Other seekers--desperate for gain,
Starving for gold.

You, the Turk, the Swede, the German, the Scot ...
You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru, bought
Sold, stolen, arriving on a nightmare
Praying for a dream.

Here, root yourselves beside me.

I am the Tree planted by the River,
Which will not be moved.

I, the Rock, I the River, I the Tree
I am yours--your Passages have been paid.

Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.

History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.

Lift up your eyes upon
The day breaking for you.

Give birth again
To the dream.

Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands.

Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts
Each new hour holds new chances
For new beginnings.

Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
To brutishness.

The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.
Here, on the pulse of this fine day
You may have the courage
To look up and out upon me, the
Rock, the River, the Tree, your country.

No less to Midas than the mendicant.

No less to you now than the mastodon then.

Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister's eyes, into
Your brother's face, your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope
Good morning.

Frost / Kennedy

On Monday, Barack Obama will be sworn in for a second term as America's president. As always, hopes are high for what he might say, particularly given the coincidence of this inauguration with Martin Luther King Day. As well as his speech, for which we have such high hopes, the ceremony will include music and poetry. This year's poet is Richard Blanco, a 44-year-old gay Cuban American civil engineer turned prize-winning poet. Last time around, it was Elizabeth Alexander whose poem, Praise Song for the Day", I've mentioned before. It's hard to imagine the pressure of conceiving or bringing a poem to that occasion, but I'm glad they still expect someone to try. And what else is poetry good for if not to be the “moment’s monument”? 

I was intrigued to learn that John F Kennedy was the first president to include poetry in the ceremony. The poet was Robert Frost, then 86 years old. Frost had named Kennedy as the next president long before Kennedy announced any intention to run in 1960. In his campaign, Kennedy would often close his stump speech with two lines from Frost: “But I have promises to keep, / And miles to go before I sleep.” When he was elected, he asked Frost to read at his inauguration, and even named the poem he wanted: “The Gift Outright." Frost agreed, but then wrote another, much longer poem, which he typed up on hotel note paper in Washington the night before the ceremony. On the day, wind and glare made the typed poem hard for him to read, so he simply recited the other poem, Kennedy's first choice, from memory. Afterwards, his advice to Kennedy was to govern with “poetry and power,” to which Kennedy responded: “It's poetry and power all the way!" Read more about the poet and the president here

I find the story lovely, but the poem itself less so. It speaks to a different sensibility from the one Blanco will draw on and perhaps, if we're lucky, immortalise. I would have guessed it's not exactly the sensibility surrounding Kennedy's election, either, with its nostalgic backward glance and glorification of settlement, but I wasn't there. Kennedy obviously thought it was perfect for his moment, the monument he required. Here it is:
The land was ours before we were the land's.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England's, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become. 

Praise song

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.