During the week of Barack Obama’s historic presidential inauguration, the American public was treated to the sounds of famous entertainers of every kind performing and paying homage to the event. But for me, it is the words of a considerably lesser known figure that still resound in my ears.
Confined to traveling on Inauguration Day by car to catch a flight back from Colorado to my home in the Pittsburgh area, I inched forward to the static of the radio as my husband and I clung to a station in the mountainous passes. Straining to hear every syllable, I heard the voice of Elizabeth Alexander, reading “Praise Song for the Day”. For that moment in time, a poet had the grand stage and I could not miss it.
As a poet leading a community poetry program in Washington, PA, I loved this work for its simple but stunning honesty, and how it elevated our nation’s work ethic to poetic status. But I also loved how “Praise Song for the Day”, brilliant in its accessibility, reminded us of how necessary and relative poetry is for our everyday lives. Stopping for poetry, like stopping for coffee with a neighbor, is a soul refreshment we all can use. Poetry like Alexander’s has the ability to unite us by quietly nudging us to think about the common ways we are all related in our communities and the threads that weave us together.
“Someone is stitching up a hem, darning a hole in a uniform, patching a tire, repairing the things in need of repair,” echoes Alexander’s poem. I cannot help but think of this poem as a “theme song” if you will, for our nation’s blue-collar towns, and especially the places in which I was raised in Western Pennsylvania. “Praise Song for the Day” celebrates the women who still pull out needle and thread and darn, rather than throw out that which can be re-used and renewed. It invokes thoughts of kind mechanics who do the patching, while teachers and businesspeople sip hot coffee in waiting rooms, thankful to be on their way again. The poem makes me think of people like this who keep us all moving forward, perhaps by making pizza for our stomachs, and those who wear the uniforms that have been hemmed and stitched. They are the beating heart of our towns.
“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,” Alexander’s poem says. Think of this next time you are walking down a busy street. Everyone has a story and they are walking around with it. You catch it or you don’t. You wonder about it, or you don’t. How many times do you see the same person but not know their name? There is an electric field full of strife and story brushing past us; a current of humanity we can tap into if we choose.
I also like the references to music in “Praise Song for the Day”. Somewhere, someone is always making music. You can hear it from high school windows where jazz bands gather in early dawn for practice, “the wooden spoons” on drums in cafes, the boom boxes blaring from porches, and the voices of singers in our clubs, concert venues and churches.
Alexander writes that a “woman and her son wait for the bus.” We see them clearly as we drive by each morning. Do we find ourselves wondering what future that child sees? Do we wonder about the school they are headed to? And do we praise or worry about what they will find there?
While you are at a red light, somewhere in a schoolroom, a teacher says the words from Alexander’s poem; “Take out your pencils. Begin.” Young children respond as though they hear the starting gun of a race. But will they finish? The answer is something that should connect us all.
Alexander has a praise song for other beginnings too as she describes “the hand-lettered sign”. Look around you; there are plenty of these. This line says, in effect, “praise those who start from scratch, a business, a journey”, that they will write by hand their pronouncements on cardboard.
Later in Alexander’s poem, her thoughts turn from the everyday to the lofty, invoking the work of pioneers of America and the scores of African Americans who have given the ultimate sacrifices for progress and equality. “Say it plain, Alexander invokes, that many have died for this day”. These words struck a chord around the world.
The poem ends speaking of love “that casts a widening pool of light”. I like to think this can be synonymous with hope; one that can reach a widening pool of people in our time, and in our own cities and towns. She then provides one of my favorite lines of the poem that makes an optimist’s hair literally stand on end. “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.”
We may have much work to do in our struggling cities, with financial restraints and the continued concerns of the economy. But now more than ever, we need poems like this to hang our hat on, to confirm us, and lift us to a loftier place, while remaining grounded to that which has made us, our towns, and all things possible.