Meaning of Elizabeth Alexander’s Inaugural Poem

by Daniel Klotz | January 22, 2009

The poem that Elizabeth Alexander offered at Barack Obama’s inauguration, “Praise Song for the Day,” is a poem whose meaning has to be teased out. It works like many contemporary American poems in this way—the first time through, all that happens is you fall for the sound and cadence and are moved by some of the images.

Steel Drum

Someone is trying to make music somewhere, | with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum. Photo by Flickr user Bitpicture.

The experience is similar to listening to a new song on the radio—on the first listening, what you hear is the tune and the basic gist of the song. In both cases (hearing/reading a poem and hearing a new single), there is a lot you miss. It’s not until you go back and hear it again (and again) that you begin to peel apart the layers and see what is really going on.

This post is my offer to walk with you through another reading of the inauguration poem and share how I am experiencing it and some of the interesting things I notice, including what I think the poem means. I don’t expect to get in the habit of explicating poems on this blog, but this is a special occasion, right?

The Meaning of Elizabeth Alexander’s Inaugural Poem in Simple Terms

Elizabeth Alexander’s poem is at its heart a celebration of the moment. The poet gently places a hand on our shoulders and politely turns us so that we can see the glorious sight that she sees.

Here is the moment in history as the poet sees it: “Someone is trying to make music somewhere,”  and today, with the inauguration of President Obama and all it signifies, that someone stands (with the rest of us who hope and struggle) “on the brink” of success in that endeavor. That someone struggling to “make music… with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum” (which is really all of us) can now launch into a rich and melodious praise song.

That, in a poetic nutshell, is what this moment in time is. That is the central “message” and theme of this poem.

A bird’s-eye view

A close reading or poem analysis always begins with a cursory reading. There are obvious things to notice. (I am working from the poem as it appears on the Academy of American Poets website.)

  • The poem is composed of fourteen stanzas of three lines each, plus one final stanza of a single line.
  • Within that minimal structure, the poem is free verse. There is no set rhythm or meter.
  • In tone, vocabulary and style, there is an “everyday” feel to the poem. It feels like natural speech that is only slightly heightened, or spruced up.
  • It seems safe to say that the speaker in the poem is, or at least surely could be, the poet herself. (Elizabeth Alexander did not, for instance, write this poem in the voice of, say, Abraham Lincoln.)
  • The poem splits neatly in half, with a “turn” between the eighth and ninth stanzas. The poet goes from speaking with us to directing her speaking at us. The poem moves from mostly description of shared experience (like “Each day we go about our business”) to imperatives. There is a lot of “we” and “us” in the first half of the poem, while the second half has a lot of implied “you”s (as in “Say it plain”).
  • The chronological setting of the poem changes throughout. There are present tense verbs (“is stitching”) as well as past tense (“raised the bridges”). There are even verbs that, while in the present tense, seem to be figurative, outside of time (“we cross dirt roads and highways”).
  • Allusion abounds. “Picked the cotton” is poignant because it is about much more than just any person in any field picking any cotton. It alludes to our national history of racial disunity.

The poem’s structure(s)

I should make it clear that many of the terms I’m using in this critique should be plural, and maybe should even appear in scare quotes. Poems have “meanings” more than they have any single definitive meaning, “structures” more than simple architectures that can be neatly mapped out, even “voices” more than a single voice that can be consistently recognized.

That said, in my reading this poem’s structure has three fundamental elements:

  1. 15 stanzas, 3 lines each, except the final one.
  2. 2 “major” sections, split at the break between stanza 8 and stanza 9.
  3. 9 smaller sections. If this poem were a novel, the 2 “major” sections would be labeled “book one” and “book two,” and the smaller sections would be chapters.

Since the stanzas (a poem’s equivalent of paragraphs) are obvious, I’ll jump into the way that I divide up this poem:

‘BOOK ONE’

‘Chapter 1: Invocation”

Each day we go about our business,

‘Chapter 2: Description of the Present’

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, darn
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.

‘Chapter 3: Considering the Past and Our Nature’

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.

‘BOOK TWO’

‘Chapter 1: Present Imperative’

Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,

‘Chapter 2: Our Ancestors in the Past’

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.

‘Chapter 3: Happier Present Imperative’

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

‘Chapter 4: Considering the Present and Our Possibility’

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.

‘Chapter 5: Today, This Moment’

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,

‘Chapter 6: Epilogue’

praise song for walking forward in that light.

From Structure to Flow

By Elizabeth Alexander’s design, we do not experience this poem as structure. Rather, we experience it as flow—a flow of words, sounds, images, feelings, evocations, phrases, ideas.

To explain this distinction, let’s say that structure is like the creek bed with its path made of rocks and sediment. Flow is the water and the way it moves.

In a PBS NewsHour interview last week, Ms. Alexander said she considered her reading of the poem as an opportunity to give the nation “the moment of pause and shift that a poet makes possible.” It’s fitting, then, that there is a lot of pausing and shifting in this poem.

The flow of the poem moves in and out of time, and from one posture (the way a speaker addresses the reader) to another.

Bramble

"Noise and bramble, thorn and din." Photo by Flickr user Editor B.

The “invocation” (as I’m calling it, for convenience) tells us where we are and what’s going on. We are talking about everyday experience. And it is in fact we who are conversing. From there we plunge from the general “everyday” into a more specific present, this point in history as opposed to others. This is a time of uncertainty and struggle. We’re not even sure who we can talk to and who we should politely ignore. Being “about to speak” in 2009 does not lead to actually speaking, when it comes to our relationships with our neighbors. We are working hard, repairing rather than consuming.

That intense look at the present stirs up a more contemplative look at the past. The verbs tense shifts from present progressive (“-ing”) to simple present, and the perspective briefly shifts from first-person to third-person. Put another way, “we are walking” becomes “they wait.” The action itself changes in nature, too: the very specific and tangible (“darning a hole in a uniform”) becomes general and figurative (“cross dirt roads and highways”).

The flow slowly builds momentum out of the deep, contemplative pool as it builds urgency and hope, fixating on the prospect that “there’s something better down the road.” The poet snaps herself and us out of the daydreaming with a sharp command: “Say it plain: that many have died for this day.” The appropriate action is to remember, to sing the names of, our ancestors on this continent, and all they accomplished and suffered.

After dwelling for a brief moment on figures from the past, we return to the present with the wonderfully perplexing words “praise song.” Is this another command, asking us to lift praise to “song”? Or, since we are in a poem, are these just sentences without action, sentences about songs of praise?

No time to dwell on that, though—the poem is ready to get on to what does matter, which is the question of how we live. Options are described, with one theme rising to the top: love. The thought of love launches us into a jarring realization of just where we are—we are here, in “this winter air,” and it’s today. Anything can happen. Possibility has piled up. With that hopeful dreaming in our heads, the poem closes with an upbeat epilogue, “praise song for walking forward in that light.”

Untangling some trouble spots in the meaning

It is only at this point that I can begin to feel comfortable going line by line. We’ve established context, given ourselves a good sense of the poem as a whole.

Even after this critical reading, almost an exegesis, there will be so much that I have left out. I hope you chime in with comments on what you see and experience that I have missed or simply left out.

Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other’s
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

Two things to note on the sound: the half-buried alliteration of “about” with “business,” and the repetition of the long “e” sound  in “each” and “speak.”

On the rhythm, the poem begins with two stressed syllables, which gives it a strong and methodical feel from the beginning. We know we are about to “pause and shift.”

These lines concisely capture the greatest hardships of our current condition: not the alienation of the modern era, but rather something like alienation, a more postmodern problem. In 2009, we are not truly isolated—all we have to do is make eye contact with anyone around us and speak—but yet we feel isolated, we lack the will, we lack the sense that we live in community as neighbors. It’s important that this present difficulty is “said plain” right away, so that we read of our predecessors with empathy rather than pity.

All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.

There is a flipped parallelism in “noise and bramble, thorn and din.” In the past, Western expectations would have been considered bad form; parallelism expects “noise and bramble, din and thorn.” Today we can say, Whatever, this way sounds better.

We should be really astonished at what Elizabeth Alexander is saying here. We speak of our ancestors and are noise-makers. That’s almost impossible to catch on first reading, that “our ancestors on our tongues” is not in any sense reverential. We are not honoring our forefathers (note that she inconspicuously avoids any such gender-specific words); instead, we are using their names as the raw material for the making of noise. We blather of the past.

Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.

There’s alliteration again here at the beginning in “someone is stitching.” We continue to see more and more repetition of words: “each” and “speak” in stanza one, “all about us is noise” in stanza two, and “repair” in this stanza.

Word repetition gets a bad rap in many writing courses, based on the false premise that word repetition and “word choice” cannot live together. In fact, repetition of a word is itself a word choice, and many times a good one. Wallace Stevens, one of the great twentieth-century American poets, could hardly repeat words frequently enough.

The choice of “darning” is interesting and I don’t know what to make of it. It feels quaint and old-timey, but we’re talking about the present. That’s something to wonder about.

There are definitely bigger issues involved here. The uniform brings up our military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, patching a tire our continued reliance on automobiles, stitching a hem perhaps an indication of hard economic times, when not everyone can simply buy new pants. At any rate, “the things in need of repair” are hardly so concrete. The economy, our culture, the whole world are all 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.

Alliteration in “make music.” I love lists like this in poems; they give detail and almost always contain a surprise. This list is all surprises in its diversity. “Harmonica” is held up with “boom box” is held up with “cello.”

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

Others have suggested that the image of the mother and son waiting for the bus invokes Jim Crow-era segregation and the Civil Rights era. Others have also said that this poem as a whole feels like Walt Whitman to them, and this is the stanza where I see their point most clearly. These characters are presented not as Americans, but as America.

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

This is a very “poet” thing to say, which is part of the reason it irked me at first. You have the chance to address the nation, and all you have to write words about is words? On further reflection, this is a message we do need to be reminded of, and it fits well in the poem. Even though we’re unsure when to go from being “about to speak” to actually “speaking,” and even though our words often amount to so much “noise,” words still carry enormous power and importance. They allow us to commune with our fellow human beings.

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.

It’s interesting and notable that “some one” is split as two words, and I suspect it points to the power of a small minority over the rest of us. After all, it is the will of very few (some one) that has caused innumerable highways to be built over “bad” sections of town, where the already-marginalized make their homes. The “ones” even have the audacity to claim that their way of seeing the world is superior, that we “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.

This is the only stanza in the poem where each line is a single complete sentence. The idea of safety, I think, ties the personal to the global in this poem. It’s something we all still seek, but we wonder (as have our ancestors) if safety and security can truly be found. This stanza may read differently in a hundred years, but in 2009, “where we are safe” calls terrorism to mind.

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,

The “say it plain” line has taken a lot of grief, because some critics think Elizabeth Alexander didn’t listen to her own advice. What she’s really doing, though, is to call herself out from being obviously poetic, because the next thing she is about to say doesn’t need a single flourish: people have died that we might live out this day. This stanza is a big shift in the poem; it’s where we move from noise to singing, from repeating ourselves noisily to making new melody.

picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

I consider this to be the single most interesting stanza in the poem. She puts a cliché out there, because it is true (picking cotton is an iconic image of white America’s historical enslavement of Africans and their descendants), and then breaks it with the anti-cliche “lettuce.” We hear “picked the cotton” and think generally of slavery. We hear “picked the lettuce” and think of specific, back-breaking work.

I also take delight in imagining that Elizabeth Alexander was sneaking in a bust on John McCain, who in 2006 infamously claimed that no Americans would be willing to pick lettuce in the hot sun, even for $50 an hour.

Overall, this stanza is about the other side of “progress.” It’s worth noting that buildings big enough to be “edifices” are rarely if ever constructed with bricks, so the idea of building something “brick by brick” is clearly metaphorical.

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

As I wrote above, it’s enjoyable how “praise” can be either verb or adjective, maybe both. “Hand-lettered sign” is a nice touch to mark the specific occasion for the poem and to acknowledge her immediate audience, and to connect them with past demonstrations, celebrations, and struggles. I was surprised, though, to hear a poet use “kitchen table” in much the same tired way as politicians use it.

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?

I think that Elizabeth Alexander is in fact taking possible codes to live and stacking them up against each other. She declares the first option the winner. There are echoes of St. Paul’s “faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love” here. It seems she believes it’s possible to remove all sense of ownership from the imperative to love. By removing the words “thy neighbor as thyself,” she makes it a human thing, and clears it of being dismissed as a Christian thing.

We have already seen the poet’s regard for words, earlier in the poem. So, being the mightiest of words is no mean feat.

Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

The meaning here is simple: The type of love we’re talking about is pure love with no expectations on it, love that is free to be what it is, not what we want it to be. (One thing we often want it to be is a source of safety [note the recurring theme] from grief.)

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,

The redundancy in the last line of the stanza makes it abundantly clear that the meaning is important. The first two lines tell us that we’re here, in a way that is more than just being “present.” We are alive in a moment that requires and rewards our full engagement. After all the looking back and contemplation, “here” turns out to be a beginning, a starting line.

praise song for walking forward in that light.

There is so much joy in this line. Elizabeth Alexander wants us to consider, what could be better than beginning from this beginning, than moving on from this new moment?

Comments, please

If you’ve made it to the end of this post, whether by skimming or by whatever other means necessary, I hope you’ll take the time to join the conversation. This explication and review has largely been a conversation with myself. I’m anxious to expand it to include at least a few more people.

19 comments

I thought it was a buzz kill. Her delivery of the poem was awful and following the orator that is Obama, it was a terrible choice.

by Gav on January 22, 2009 at 7:36 pm. #

The poem absolutely captured the gravity, celebration, and the reflection of the moment. Your exegesis shows that it is even more rewarding on the page.

by Guthrie Ramsey on January 22, 2009 at 11:37 pm. #

Thanks so much for the detailed breakdown. Insightful and informative!

by misgatos on January 23, 2009 at 12:32 am. #

I agree with the exegesis provided, and would also point out that the delivery itself, which has been frequently criticized, seems intentional. The pauses between words creates the effect of snapshots taken as we walk slowly, relfectively, together. The reading style is counterpoint to “noise and bramble, thorn and din.” The fact that so many have judged the reading so harshly shows either an inability to appreciate the affect she is trying to create, or is further evidence of the way modern media has deadened us to nuance.

by Christopher Joiner on January 23, 2009 at 11:01 am. #

That’s a very good point, Christopher, to bring in the performance in addition to the text. One thing that I appreciate in her reading was that her intonation didn’t give any clues as to how to solve the puzzle about whether “praise song” is verb-noun or adjective-noun.

I’m not sure what it was that caused so many of us (myself included) to dislike the delivery initially. Public poems in antiquity were not always greeted well, and were often harshly criticized, so I’m reticent to blame it on the “modern media.” I do think her reading style was in line with her thinking of this being a moment to “pause and shift.” The pauses and negative space in this poem, as you and others are pointing out, does seem to have a good deal of significance. There are certainly points in the poem when a great deal happens in the negative space between stanzas.

Thanks for great comments and insights.

by Daniel Klotz on January 23, 2009 at 11:07 am. #

I’ve heard Alexander deliver poems before, and I can attest that the mechanics of delivery is something that she obviously thinks deeply about. I agree with Daniel Klotz’s observation about the media’s impatience with nuance. The much more effusive performance/rhetorical styles that we experienced in both the prayers, the speech, and even the song dramatically set the poem’s performance apart from the expected, the norm. Remember when the President had to work out the practice of his performed “self” when he was a candidate? It was amazing to see him calibrate it with media expectations, audience impatience. I hope we let the poets do their thing without the pressures of “immediate emotional impact,” if you will.

Thanks for the opportunity to meditate on all this.

by Guthrie Ramsey on January 23, 2009 at 11:31 am. #

[…] and Poetry and Uncategorized pmpoetry 7:19 pm There is also explication posted on Daniel Klotz’s website.   At times, he seems to belabor the […]

by Alexander’s poem: an explication « Pmpoetry’s Weblog on January 23, 2009 at 2:33 pm. #

This was a great lesson on how to interpret the nuances in a particular poem. I’m serious.
About the “praise song,” I saw Alexander on the Colbert Report ( http://www.urlzoom.org/24c ) and she explained that it is a West African form of poetry used to “name something that we take joy in.”

by Wendy Edsall-Kerwin on January 24, 2009 at 1:11 pm. #

While I find the meaning, intent, and word choice (for the most part) well-selected and inspiring, her delivery was a distraction.

I understand and am glad that, as a poet, Alexander makes a point to specifically choose the way she delivers the words – Delivery is everything when you are reading a poem no one has heard and does not see written for themselves.

However, I think she crossed the line from clearly-spoken and well-timed into overly enunciated and almost monotone. I really believe that a poet can articulate clearly and do her words justice while still reading in a way that makes tonal and rhythmic sence. The exaggerated articulation of the consonants between words (particularly the long pauses between every………….single……………word……………) really seemed to take away from a more conversational tone that speaks to an audience as large and wide as was present at the Inauguration.

Alexander made a comment in an interview about poets not typically reading to such a large audience, and perhaps the tone and articulation errors were a result of over-preparing and practicing before the big day. As an audience, we could have sacrificed some of the consonant sounds for an intelligible speaking style.

by Becky Litteken on January 25, 2009 at 12:49 am. #

Good points, Becky. Everyone understood Barrack Obama, and he didn’t have to speak so unnaturally. The delivery did cause me to feel that Ms. Alexander spent more attention on making every word count, at the expense of every phrase. I can tell you, though, from looking at my blog stats, that a lot of people are in fact following up on the poem. They want to see it in type, want to learn more about what it meant, and want to know why she read it the way she did. (I’m not sure I’m any help on that last one.) That is encouraging.

Wendy, thanks for the link to the Colbert show. I heard she was on the show but haven’t watched the interview yet. I researched enough on African praise songs to get a vague sense of what they are all about and to discover that this poem doesn’t fall strictly into that form, but I really didn’t feel knowledgeable enough to discuss that angle at any length. Thanks for making sure we don’t ignore it. Thank you also for the encouragement; I’m glad you found it insightful. I heard a lot of people saying things like, “I’m no expert,” or “I don’t really know how to understand poetry,” even as they clearly wanted to know more and appreciate it more deeply. I thought I would take a shot at showing how an appreciative close reading is done.

by Daniel Klotz on January 25, 2009 at 8:15 am. #

Your analysis outshines the poem.

Which is to say: I didn’t like the poem at all but your analysis was virtuosic. I’ll bet you could make the ingredients list on a box of Frosted Flakes sound like masterpiece ;-) .

Interesting to compare your response to Margaret Soltan’s over at: http://www.margaretsoltan.com/?p=8237

My own analysis is more in line with Margaret’s. I cited your blog as providing a favorable and top-notch analysis nonetheless. Rather than post it at my Poetry Blog (just to shake things up) I posted my own response over at:

http://duplicitous46xyprimate.blogspot.com/2009/01/elizabeth-alexanders-inaugural-poem.html

If you’re curious.

by Patrick Gillespie on January 25, 2009 at 4:30 pm. #

Hi Daniel,

Thanks again for commenting on my blog.

I have a question regarding your structural analysis: do you really think a nine-chapter, two-part structure is tenable for such a short poem? It seems to me that this is a lot of ideas for one small poem. I always thought that poets, particularly contemporary poets, practice economy when choosing their words because focus and brevity help them uncover the true essences of experiences, emotions, and images. I’m not even talking about experimental poetry, here…I mean poetry that’s meant to be heard and read on a grand scale.

My other note is that I think that the “kitchen tables” thing was also a veiled dig at McCain/homage to Biden…which I find entertaining, but possibly not what the occasion called for.

Thanks for keeping the dialogue open…a comment that I’ve heard quite frequently is that, love it or hate it, this poem has gotten people talking about poetry.

by Melanie on January 25, 2009 at 6:14 pm. #

Hi Daniel,

Over at my own post, you wrote:

//I feel like our two entries are a sort of conversation–one that is honest, respectful, and passionate.//

Um… which one is the honest, respectful and passionate one?

Just kidding.

But seriously… I agree with you. I think there are any number of good commentaries on this poem – for and against. Our two make a good pair, though yours is more thorough and patient.

by Patrick Gillespie on January 25, 2009 at 6:53 pm. #

My English as a Second Language group is reading the poem, so I was getting some help from you in order to have a better informed discussion with them. The immediate reaction I had to the “picked the cotton and the lettuce” was different – a presumed a reference to blacks with cotton and hispanics with the lettuce – Cesar Chavez and the organization of workers in California. I know that “black” would inform most of the work, but perhaps a nod to other minorites who have struggled as well.

Thanks for the help.

by Sharon on January 26, 2009 at 9:34 am. #

I’m glad that my exploration of the poem was useful to you, Sharon. I think you’re right about the lettuce being a reference to Latino workers, just as laying train tracks is likely a reference to Chinese immigrants. McCain’s remark about lettuce-picking had to do with the issue of immigration from Mexico, which is one more instance of lettuce being a reference to Latino workers.

by Daniel Klotz on January 26, 2009 at 9:50 am. #

Daniel — Thanks for delving into the meaning of this poem. Far too much of the discussion I have seen remains focused on how the listener/reader felt in response (usually positive) or how the poet/critic dissected the mechanics of Alexander’s writing or delivery (usually negative). For this is a poem that was written to mean something on a historic occasion.

I wish you had dealt more with the lines about love, the climax of the poem. It seems to me that you’re erring on the side of the love you hope that Alexander intends, a pure love beyond expectations.

However, the context of this poem, befitting a professor of African-American Studies, is a straightforward leftist appeal, which addresses the working class and people of color on the event of Obama’s inauguration. The love Alexander delineates may be beyond the conventional American loves of spouse, family and nation (the poem does not even mention America), but it certainly does not go beyond the categories of class and color.

And where does Alexander’s “mightiest love” land? Not a love involving God, forgiveness, sacrifice, all sentient beings, life or other notions of pure love we’ve heard before–no, just a love that does not pre-empt grievance. That’s it.

Surely you’ve heard of the politics of grievance, very much at the heart of what concerns professors of African-American Studies these days? Grievance is the transactional coin between the oppressed and the oppressor. It’s not something I would recognize as pure love.

I don’t object to “Praise Song” as a leftist, color and class based poem. I do object to the pretense that it is a transcendent, inclusive poem of a glittering new post-racial America that Obama spoke of at times and many Americans thought they were voting for.

by huxley on January 27, 2009 at 8:52 am. #

A generous and careful reading of this quiet, careful and generous poem. As a poet who gives readings I found Alexander’s reading clear and appropriate. There is a quality of humility to this work which suits its subject and doesn’t bring outsized ego to the occasion. Your explication will help the poem because it wasn’t the dazzling kind and it may reach more people on the page.

The placement of the poet on the program was difficult. Obama is a tough act to follow.

I liked the figuring out at kitchen tables phrase, which really fits our worried times. As an Irish-American I gave my ancestors a role in her list of those who have built our country. Finally, I loved the turn in “Say it plain.” That is exactly what Alexander is doing and most effectively in this poem.

by Susan Donnelly on January 30, 2009 at 3:52 pm. #

Just a thought about the phrase “darning a hole in a uniform.” Darning is a repairing technique for fabric with a hole in it as opposed to a tear in it; but “darn” is also a euphemism for “damn,” and as such the line could be understood as “damning a hole in the uniform” most likely a hole made by a bullet that wounded or killed a soldier. I appreciate your explication of the poem.

by Joanne DeSimone Reynolds on September 13, 2012 at 5:18 pm. #

Great insights! Thank you for taking the time to share them. A great text always stays ahead of us…

by Daniel Klotz on September 25, 2012 at 6:42 pm. #