Did you follow, or watch, the Inauguration Ceremony last Tuesday? Here at KUHF, the morning buzzed with the broadcast of NPR's live coverage. Many of us gathered in the Newsroom, with its TV screens carrying CNN, or in front of the Lobby's large monitor to take in the images.
It was a bright, cold day, and I couldn't help trying to imagine the winter air in Washington, what people were feeling, standing in the elements, united -- cheering, waiting, speaking to thousands, performing.
Sandwiched between the most anticipated moment -- President Obama's Oath of Office and address -- and the benediction by distinguished civil rights leader Joseph Lowery was the Inaugural Poem.
I've been thinking about Praise Song for the Day by Elizabeth Alexander.
Dr. Alexander recited it with poise, quiet strength and humility, not unlike the poem, itself. It's full of idiom and common turns of phrases, the syntax of everyday. The poem speaks, with ease. "Every day we go about our business, walking past each other ..." "We walk into that which we cannot yet see."
My favorite lines: "A farmer considers the changing sky; A teacher says, "Take out your pencils. Begin." "In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun."
It's the language of journeys and beginnings, the images of simple gifts: "Someone is stitching up a hem, darning a hole in a uniform, patching a tire, repairing the things in need of repair." "What if the mightiest word is love."
Roads and skies, struggle, hand-lettered signs, cotton and lettuce, kitchen tables, noise. One thinks of Walt Whitman's Song of Myself, though not exactly a humble poem:
I hear the bravuras of birds .... the bustle of growing wheat .... gossip of flames .... clack of sticks cooking my meals.Elizabeth Alexander's poem -- while at the same time reflecting on the progress of history, which is made of larger sacrifices ("sing the names of the dead who brought us here"), as well as the work and interactions of every passing moment -- is also, for me, about the human voice, written in words or spoken into air.
I hear the sound of the human voice .... a sound I love
It celebrates the power of "trying to make music," of "ancestors on our tongue." The way "we encounter each other in words" and the possibilities those encounters bring.
Here's a quote I jotted down once: "It is not only in our social life that we dread silence. We love noise more than we know, even when no other human being is present." (Robert Lynd)
I love sound. That is why I adore music and radio. I love the noise of words, the music of our speech, with the cadences, repetition and accidental rhymes in our conversations.
Elizabeth Alexander was my professor at the University of Chicago, back in the '90s, and through her writing, she continues to teach me new ways to think about, and listen to, the world. Her most recent collection of poems, American Sublime, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and she has appeared on Houston's Inprint Brown Reading Series and on KUHF's The Front Row.
If you believe, as I do, that poetry -- like music -- can be rewarding each time you revisit it, here is the transcript of the Inaugural Poem, waiting for you to discover, for yourself, what to listen for.