WASHINGTON — With a measured and steady voice, Yale professor Elizabeth Alexander ’84 bookended President Barack Obama’s maiden presidential address on Tuesday with an inaugural message of her own — an occasional poem that called for national harmony and mutual compassion in response to a new era of American history.
Alexander recited her 341 word poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” on the steps of the nation’s Capitol immediately after Obama’s swearing-in and inaugural speech. While several Yale professors acknowledged the difficulty Alexander must have faced in writing a poem of such enormous national significance, they agreed that she delivered a poem worthy of the historic occasion.
Remarked John Rogers, director of undergraduate studies for the English Department: “It’s a beautiful psalm of praise, celebrating an extraordinary historical event by means of praising ordinariness, or the heroism of everyday life.”
The poem, which centered on the everyman experiences of the American dream, was wide in scope and subject matter: “All about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din, each one of our ancestors on our tongues,” Alexander recited Tuesday.
TOUGH ACT TO FOLLOW
Yet Alexander, following the biggest act of the day’s festivities, was overshadowed by Obama’s address. In the moments after Obama’s speech, inauguration-goers shouted chants and high-fived one another — effectively drowning out Alexander’s introduction. As some hurried to beat the crowds off of the National Mall, Alexander’s slow and steady words, clearly enunciated, took several seconds to quiet the boisterous crowds.
Though her poem was certainly steeped in the African-American literary tradition, Alexander said in an interview on Sunday she hoped to reach all Americans through her language. She praised Obama’s speeches for transcending race, while still drawing from the African-American rhetorical tradition. For her inaugural piece, Alexander, like Obama, resonated on different racial and cultural registers.
“This poem is coming from an African-American woman poet who is also an American poet, who also hopefully has something to say to those who are not within the American tradition,” Alexander said in the interview.
In fact, Alexander seemed to allude to Obama’s famed lofty rhetoric in the sixth stanza of the poem, where she stated, “We encounter each other in words, words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed; words to consider, reconsider.”
And in the second-to-last stanza of the poem, Alexander gave a nod to the frigid temperature — “today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air” — that kept spectators trembling throughout the inaugural proceedings.
As she came to a close, Alexander moved from the past to the present to the future: “praise song for walking forward in that light.”
While the enthusiasm of the throngs reached a climax during Obama’s speech, people clapped politely at the conclusion of Alexander’s poem — though it took several moments for them to recognize the conclusion, because Alexander gave no clear indication of when she had finished.
‘THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF THE TASK’
Not only did Alexander have to follow in the footsteps of Robert Frost and Maya Angelou, but she also faced the challenge of providing words to capture the historical significance of a president who speaks poetically.
Rodney Reynolds ’10, who was a student of Alexander’s, said some students might find the delivery jarring, though he said she presented the musicality of the piece well — particularly given that she followed what he called “the greatest inauguration speech ever.”
The poem was always meant to stem from her personal and intimate understanding of American citizenship, an understanding steeped in her own experiences as a black woman writer, Alexander said in the interview.
“There’s beauty in the impossibility of the task,” she said. “You can’t speak to all those people, you can’t know what all these millions and millions will hear and find in your work.”
So, Alexander said, she preferred not to try. Instead, she attempted to use her inaugural poem to encapsulate the hopes and beliefs she had experienced in the aftermath of Obama’s historic victory in November.
“In a kind of paradox, that audience of millions and millions left me very free to listen to myself and simply hope that I can provide clarity,” Alexander said.
Alexander’s poem addressed the importance of humanity. Her idea to focus on the details of the lives of everyday people, she said, was inspired by the work of her greatest literary hero, Gwendolyn Brooks, an African-American poet who wrote about life in South Side Chicago from the 1940s until her death in 2000. Alexander edited a 2005 anthology of Brooks’ work, “The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks,” and said Sunday that she attempted to emulate Brooks’ focus on community spirit in her inaugural poem.
One of the final stanzas of Alexander’s poem for Obama suggests simply, “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.”
ENGLISH PROFESSORS REACT
Among students interviewed, the poem garnered mixed reviews. For example, while watching the poem, Dacie Thompson ’12 said she had a hard time following Alexander’s words but, on second reading, decided she liked the poem.
The reviewers, so far, are not overwhelmed: the Los Angeles Times called it “less than praiseworthy,” while the Chicago Tribune crticized the poem for being too “prosaic.
But for more than a dozen members of the English Department interviewed, Alexander’s poem served as a triumphant finale to an emotionally charged day for words.
“I heard, I wept, I took great pride,” English professor Leslie Brisman wrote in an e-mail message. “Elizabeth Alexander did most admirably in a particularly difficult genre. The poem makes us feel we are all heirs of those who have died so this day could come to be. Praise to her song for walking us forward in that light.”
The professors interviewed compared Alexander’s poem to past inaugural poems, such as those given by Robert Frost and Maya Angelou, and said it stands on equal ground both for its style and its meaning.
American Literature professor Robert Stepto, who said he has followed Alexander’s work since she was an undergraduate in the 1980s, described the poem as a guiding force forward in a new age: “a gifted voice can light the way,” as he put it.
Seeing Alexander’s poem as the culmination of years of American history, American literature professor Amy Brundage said Alexander’s poem spoke to the ability of humanity to alter itself.
“It reminds us of the way democracy in America is ideally the chance for all people to speak in the public sphere,” Brundage wrote in an e-mail message. “Alexander’s poem was both a beautiful instance of lyrical speech and a demonstration of how, in the years since the Civil Rights movement, our sense of American history, and what and who matters within it, who has a voice, has changed.”
Martine Powers reported from Washington, and Lawrence Gipson from New Haven. Reporting was contributed by Raymond Carlson and Esther Zuckerman.