Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The last apologetically long rant for awhile! Featuring Poets!

Below is a transcription of the inaugural poem, Praise Song For The Day, written and read today by the poet Elizabeth Alexander:

Praise song for the day.

Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each others' 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 someone 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 thy self." 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 preempt grievance.

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.

I think she wanted to go for something in the rugged, working class, pluralistic American idiom, something like this.

Her poem was well-crafted for the occasion, but lacking in boldness. I'm not sure if the occasion was calling for boldness though. Her poem, maybe to it's credit I'm not sure, was able to pull off that amazing sleight-of-hand that happens when listeners are so rarely presented with a poet reading from his or her own work. The poet--in this case her, loaded with all the historical significance of the occasion --only had to enunciate an action, no matter how simple, followed by a weighty pause, and that action thus described took on soul-shaking significance. Instantly, you understand it is a GOOD thing, or if not GOOD then at least somehow HEROIC.

"A woman and her son wait for the bus"

Which could have easily read:

A man sits on a chair


The woman opens the pantry

In this case, at least to me, ACTION is good because doing things that seem productive must be emblematic of the American dream, of how much work has been done to make sure it happens, or is happening now after all the past toils, the past blood, sweat, tears and whatever else has been shed.
A poem written about America now seems often only like an extended homage to America's deeply-troubled past, back when suffering served some distant future purpose (or so it would seem now) no matter how egregious it might have been (which it certainly was), back when the unjust sacrifices of our ancestors would become heroic preludes to how far we've come today. Past as prelude.

Every oration a requiem.

The crimes of the past exculpated by the emergence of present heroes.

It could be too that our history is so short and so much has happened in such a short time. We can't outstrip our pasts, nor should we try. And I'm probably saying obvious things, because I'm just exercising my long-dormant ability to appreciate a poem fraught with history. And in the process to appreciate history as I can feebly grasp at it with my own blind spots.

Obama, of course, is a shining example of how far we have come. He stands unique and independent above the unruly history that made him possible.

But it's hard sometimes to think of the last 8 years as the fulfillment of a previous generation's suffering and toil. If anything, the Bush Years (that dark, surreal 8 year 'present') that I just lived through as an unskilled office worker with a creative streak, in my isolated, non-Bush Bay Area bubble, didn't seem at all like the collective promises of the struggles of my parent's generation, but more like a collective Backlash by something scared, paranoid and resentful in the American psyche.

Does every lash needs a backlash? (Is there such a thing as a lash?)

In Walt's way, he celebrated the present as present, with all its robust paradoxes and complex beauties. Also its struggles yes. Back when America the concept was still fresh and exciting. I'm speaking merely of the poem, and not of the terribly-divisive historical events like the Civil War that happened when Walt was alive. And yes America was young then, almost virginal I suppose. But also rife with evil.

Alexander's poem was safely sans Walt's earthiness and joys and more laden with the ambiguous heritage of the American work ethic, whether it was embraced by the upper class or thrust upon the slaves, the poor and the immigrants. The work-ethic so beholden to the toils of the past. Pencils and ploughs ready for hard labor. But no bailout for the farmers or the teachers. It had the heart-stirring solemnity of a dirge, but nothing of the lusty zest of Leaves Of Grass.

Obama's speech too, as exceptionally well-executed as always, was rife with notions of sacrifice, compromising, hard-decisions, and labor-intensive endeavors. All indications predicted he would eloquently acknowledge the gathering crises our nation is embroiled in. And yes he would cite our "collective failure." But also our collective strength which, apparently, is boundless when politicians refer to it.

But if what I hope he meant about sacrifice was that we, as spendthrift, Wal-Mart employee-trampling-to-death, gas-guzzling, billionaire-assisting, puritanically hedonistic Americans need to rein in our earth-destroying ways and our fellow-nation-enraging hubris and doing this will require some sacrifices, as befitting any social contract, and some acts of restraint, as befitting human integrity, then his speech was a success. And I think that's what he meant.
But I'm not really a pundit, or that kind of blogger. Back to poetry:

Back to the poem specifically: it wasn't bad, I'm not saying that. In fact, its simplicity seemed appropriate and was occasionally lovely. The inauguration was not a moment to indulge in pomp when so much is going badly. Although I think she could have read it less woodenly. I especially like the "love beyond marital, filial, national". To me, that has possibilities beyond gestures and ceremonials. Beyond rhetoric too. Beyond nationalism, religion, and many of the more blood-soaked narratives that keep history moving at a rapid clip.
I still wonder though, among us, who reads poetry anymore.

I read it sometimes these days, and used to read it almost exclusively back when I wrote heaps of poetry for girls who remain unmoved.

Obama certainly reads a lot, including poetry (like Derek Walcott) and that is exciting.

He actually gives me hope that books, literature, the arts and the intellect still have some staying power in this country. I hope he considers the Secretary of the Arts petition too.
After all, civilizations are remembered more for their artists, musicians, writers, thinkers, and great intellects than for their plutocrats, politicians, bankers, and CEO's, right?

Today is a momentous day though. I'm glad to be experiencing it, to be a part of history, even if I can't fully grasp the enormity of it all.

I wish I wasn't so sleepy though, or felt the lousiness of the hyper-allergenic, or the fiscal anxiety of the part-timer.

And it is very busy here at work as I man the phones and steal away a little time to think about words on this historic day.

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