Poets are seldom put on the spot to speak on national television next to a popular president, as Elizabeth Alexander did on Tuesday, abruptly standing in front of a crowd of millions. Before I took poetry seriously, I once addressed a large crowd on the Mall in Washington protesting the war in Vietnam. I was so overwhelmed standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King Jr. famously spoke and facing a sea of expectant faces that I don’t remember what I said.
Poetry helps us remember what’s important. Alexander, a widely published poet, reminded us what was important about the path of Barack Obama’s amazing journey from obscure community organizer to president of the United States.
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," she said in the central passage of her poem, “Praise Song for the Day.”
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.
Alexander, who was born in New York City and now teaches at Yale, was only the fourth poet to speak at a presidential inauguration. The first, Robert Frost, was a national icon when tapped to honor John F. Kennedy’s swearing in ceremony in 1961. As a senior in high school in a small town in New York state, I barely paid attention to what the white-haired old poet said on TV.
But JFK understood what I had yet to learn. There is a powerful, popular history conveyed in poetry that tells people’s stories in ways that don’t always toe the official line. Some years later, many Vietnam veterans including myself tapped into that history to present a dissident GI view of the war in Vietnam that Kennedy’s actions launched.
This is what JFK had in mind, as reported recently in The New York Times: “A few years after Frost recited ‘The Gift Outright’ at Kennedy’s inauguration, the president had the chance to speak some public words about Frost, who died in 1963 at 88. Less than a month before his own death Kennedy appeared at the groundbreaking of the Robert Frost Library at Amherst College.
“’When power corrupts, poetry cleanses,’ Kennedy said. ‘When power leads man towards his arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence.’”
Elizabeth Alexander—whose father was a Harlem community organizer when Frost recited his poem beside JFK and later, under President Carter, became the first African American Secretary of the Army—has written powerfully about the ugly side of power. In a poem titled “Smile,” cited in a profile of her in The New York Times, she wrote:
When I see a black man smiling
like that, nodding and smiling
with both hands visible, mouthing
“Yes, Officer,” across the street,
I think of my father, who taught us
the words “cooperate,” “officer,”
to memorize badge numbers,
who has seen black men shot at
from behind in the warm months north.
As Obama too surely knows, poetry is not all smiley, pretty words on TV.
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(This article is also posted at Opinion Forum.)