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Bewildering Stories

Explication of “Praise Song for the Day”

by Oonah V. Joslin

A foreign perspective on the Inaugural Poem

How do you write a poem for the inauguration of the first African-American President of the United States? On the 20th of January 2009, Elizabeth Alexander showed us how. In this brief appreciation of her poem I have chosen to analyse the section which meant most to me as a ‘foreigner’ watching these momentous events on TV, and it was this.

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.

I chose these stanzas because they are at the heart of the piece and in them, Alexander talks about the minutia of life; the small things that take up a day; the ‘necessary’ tasks that keep things running.

She refers to the artistic life and the various ways in which people express themselves and make themselves heard through percussion, music and voice.

She also points to the quiet spaces in between tasks where we have time to think, waiting. I especially loved the images of patching a tyre without which the vehicle cannot run and the picking up of a pencil, showing how the prerequisite to the completion of any task is in its beginning.

But voices are especially important to this inaugural poem of ‘praise’ and ‘song’ because this is the culminating moment in the expression of democratic process. The poet has already mentioned the ‘tongues’ the ethnic mix that makes up the American nation. That this section is central, puts small people and not necessarily Americans in a place of importance.

Her audience on this day is primarily the people of America, and she includes here the urban with the rural. But in these stanzas she reaches beyond, to people all over the world in the things that are being done and the language she is using.

This is not about capitalism and consumerism. It is about making and mending; the farmer relying on the weather, the mother, child, teacher. When she mentions, “wooden spoons on an oil drum,” we recall the rhythms of Caribbean and African music, the harmonica of blues rhythms, cello and boom box — how far removed the one from the other and the human voice that has such multiplicity.

Elizabeth ALexander celebrates our common humanity no matter who or where we are; the uniform for example could be that of serving military personnel or a schoolboy. That farmer could be anywhere on Earth, but we all live under the same sky.

These things are not unique to America and this sense of the wider audience brings people abroad into that family of ‘we’ she has been referring to at the beginning of the poem. ‘Someone’ I felt, could be me. I am not eavesdropping on an occasion, but welcome and even necessary to it.

That shift from the specific ‘we’ of the first stanzas, to the general; ‘Someone... Someone... A woman... A farmer... A teacher’ etc, is very inclusive and somewhat reminiscent of the song Kumbaya — ‘Someone’s crying, Lord’, here, “Someone is trying...” All the gerunds emphasise the struggle — people striving to do things all over the place.

There is no obtrusive rhyme to get in the way of the flow of these thoughts. Rather it is the rhythms that create unity between these people “A woman... A farmer... A teacher” and the repetitions at the beginning of the lines are important in telling us that that “Someone,” is anyone.

But there is rhyme if you care to look for it. Consider ‘tyre’ ‘repair’ ‘somewhere’. Also note the rounded sounds in, “wooden spoons, cello, boom box, harmonica, voice” and how important the syntax is in emphasising voice above all the others. A recurring theme throughout this poem is voice; the voice of the people and the tongues of nations.

This section of the poem is structured as part of the whole. There are mostly ten or eleven beats to each line. That echoes traditional forms. Alexander uses triplets, a kind of trinity which again befits the occasion and echoes the trinity of ‘preserve, protect and defend’ which is part of the oath.

There is order throughout, whether she is talking about the small tasks on hand or the vast task ahead, order is maintained and it gives weight to what she is saying. Order is also what government is all about. The triplets knit everything to everything else. They draw us in and draw our attention to the ideas that matter as in the penultimate line, “On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,” which is made up of another trinity.

Then there is a gap, a space just like the spaces she sets up here, where people take pause:

A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky.
A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.

‘Wait,’ ‘consider,’ ‘begin.’

That is what this day is for above all. Before taking up the office of President, this is that caesura, the silent moment that makes it possible for one man to begin so vast a task, just as both a teacher and pupils do, beginning with the pencil.

Copyright © 2009 by Oonah V. Joslin

Editor’s note:

How do you write a poem for the inauguration of the first African-American President of the United States?

True, after Mr. Obama’s election, he was a historically unique symbol: “the first African-American president.” But since the moment of his oath of office, he’s been known simply as “the President.” And that’s exactly as it ought to be.

I think Professor Alexander’s poem echoed the tone of the President’s inaugural address, which had a broad vision and a profound sensitivity to history expressed in straightforward, unpretentious language.

Don Webb, managing editor
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