Provision #600: Inaugural Poems

Laser Provision

In years past, I have written and published a poem at the start of each New Year to focus our energy and guide our meditations. This year, however, I decided to write a poem on the occasion of Barack Obama’s inauguration as the 44th President of the United States of America. I’m not alone in that pursuit as another, far-more-qualified candidate has been commissioned to compose and recite an official poem on that day. But mine has its place in the family of things, and this Provision sets the context for its meaning and message. Enjoy.

LifeTrek Provision

It is somehow fitting to write a poem not only to celebrate the upcoming inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States of America, but also to celebrate the upcoming publication of my 500th Provision (the numbering started at 101). Poems are like that: they require an occasion, an inspiration, to be called forth.

That said, however, and counting the new poem to be written and read by Yale Professor Elizabeth Alexander at Barack Obama’s inauguration, only four Presidents have commissioned poems to be read on this august occasion. Such poems are, indeed, a rather modern and seemingly a Democratic phenomenon:

  • Robert Frost recited “The Gift Outright” for the inauguration John F. Kennedy in 1961.
  • Maya Angelou wrote “On The Pulse Of Morning” for the first inauguration of Bill Clinton in 1993.
  • Miller Williams wrote “Of History and Hope” for the second inauguration of Bill Clinton in 1997.
  • Elizabeth Alexander’s poem for the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009 is yet to be unveiled.

The quality of these poems is, according to the critics, a rather mixed bag. That can happen when poems become a work for hire. The worst of the bunch, some say, is the poem that Frost had written for Kennedy’s inauguration, titled “Dedication.” Ironically, and perhaps fortuitously, Frost was unable to decipher his typescript of the poem in the high wind and strong sun. So, instead of reading the poem he had written for the occasion, Frost pulled one from memory.

Maya Angelou’s poem was the longest and perhaps the most memorable of the bunch. It was an ode to the country’s diversity, struggle, and potential. After a shout-out to a representative sampling of America’s many constituencies, Angelou intoned:

Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.
History, despite its wrenching pain
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.

Lift up your eyes upon
This day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.

Miller Williams’ poem echoes similar refrains. I like his lines calling the living to account to the dead:

But where are we going to be, and why, and who?
The disenfranchised dead want to know.
We mean to be the people we meant to be,
to keep on going where we meant to go.

In advance of Barack Obama’s inauguration, no one knows what Elizabeth Alexander’s poem will say. Not even the President-elect himself has a copy. She is guarding it, Alexander comments, like a “mother tiger.” That’s the beauty of a poem. It is a work of art and no one, not even Presidents, can squelch its originality and genius.

I happened to hear Alexander being interviewed on NPR in mid-December, who described the commissioning as a challenging rather than a fearful task, and I found myself wondering what I would come up with were I to have been so commissioned.

That thought has stayed with me ever since, and it came into focus when I visited my sister’s church over the Christmas holidays. Martin Luther King, Jr. called 11:00 on Sunday morning the most segregated hour in America, and we have not made sufficient progress in the intervening decades. At my sister’s church, I worshipped with an almost exclusively white congregation. As we were leaving after lunch, however, I saw an almost exclusively black congregation from a different denomination starting their worship service in the same sanctuary. I felt sad, because my needs for community and connection were not fully met.

The election of Barack Obama represents a significant chink in the armor of human tribalism. My niece, who attends my sister’s church, will also be attending the inauguration. How different that crowd will be from her church back home! Faces and voices, races and religions, creeds and cultures, nations and orientations representing the entire human family will be in attendance at what is predicted to be a record turnout. That is the hope and promise of it all and that is the context for my own, whimsical poem titled, “Inauguration”:

What is this thing we do?
Each one standing in a different queue.
What is this thing I see?
Each one singing in a different key.

What is this thing we fear?
Each one shouting a different cheer.
What is this thing we yield?
When each one seeds a different field.

Yet standing in this place
We do embrace the human race.
And singing with this crowd
We see beyond the human shroud.

Since shouting for this cause
Strips fear from human claws.
And deep within this change
Lie seeds of hope in fertile range.

I’m sure Professor Alexander’s official poem will be much grander and more transcendent than my simple, rhyming couplets. Yet all attempts to capture the profundity of the moment will ultimately fall short since, as Alice Walker wrote last November in an Open Letter to Barack Obama, it is “almost more than the heart can bear.”

We are, indeed, the ones we have been waiting for. In this time of global travail, may we take comfort in and responsibility for the seeds of hope that are being planted this week. Whatever our political ideology, may we rest and work together for the good of all.

PS • You can also listen, if you want, to a follow-up interview on NPR with Professor Alexanderafter she had completed her poem. It’s an enjoyable 6 minutes. All that’s left is to hear her recite the poem on Tuesday, January 20, 2009.

Coaching Inquiries: What feelings do you have at this moment in history? What hopes inspire you to full engagement? How can you express those feelings and more fully meet those needs? How can you rise to the challenges we face? Who can join you on the journey?

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LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob..

Thanks so much for your recent series on Being Fully Alive. It has really spoken to me over the past year and has guided both my husband and me to pay attention to more important things. We are looking forward to what you come up with next! 

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School
Immediate Past President, International Association of
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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