Provision #601: Inaugural Poems II

Laser Provision

After writing my own inaugural poem, Inauguration, we finally got to hear the official poem on January 20, 2009. That poem is reprinted below with a few reflections on why the inauguration of Barack H. Obama has taken the world by storm and stimulated the imagination of so many. That’s happened in history whenever there’s been a turning of the tables, and now it has happened again. Enjoy the day!

LifeTrek Provision

Last week I wrote about the relatively recent phenomenon of writing poems to celebrate the inauguration of United States’ presidents. As you may remember, I wrote one myself for Barack Obama’s big day, titled Inauguration.

I was inspired to write my poem both by the import of the occasion and by listening to Elizabeth Alexander on NPR. She was the Yale University professor selected to write and recite the official poem for the inauguration. No one knew what she would come up with and I, for one, appreciated her efforts. For those who missed it, here it is again (• 2009, Elizabeth Alexander and Graywolf Press), titled “Praise Song for the Day”:

Each day we go about our business,
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, 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 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.

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 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.

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,

praise song for walking forward in that light.

For all their differences in form and length (my poem was a simple set of eight rhyming couplets), I was struck by the similarities of flow and theme. In writing my poem, I, too, was struck by the noise, the spiny words, and the struggle. I, too, was struck by the promise of a better of day where all people are safe. I, too, was struck by the sparkle of love on a widening pool of light. I liked Alexander’s metaphors and I liked seeing the connections between her work and my own.

Literary critics were not so impressed with Alexander’s poem, however. “Too prosy”, said one, “unmemorable” said another. The Los Angeles Times called it “less than praiseworthy” and The New Republic described it as “bureaucratic.” To give but one reviewer’s conclusion: “Even when writing for a public occasion and a vast audience, the poet should be able to renew language by being precise, surprising, unhackneyed. Otherwise, what is the point of such a commission? Alexander is a true people’s poet, but she has written better poems for the people than this one.”

Yikes! I’m glad my own poems will never be reviewed professionally. That’s a tough crew to please • there go those spiny words again • when you’re standing on such a lofty platform in front of billions of people. Perhaps the people know differently. Alexander’s publisher, Graywolf Press, is rushing out an $8 paperback of the poem on February 6, 2009 and it is already the bestselling poetry title on Those voices probably mean more to Alexander than any other.

What do you make of this thing we have been doing in the United States of America? We have been writing quite a story and people worldwide have taken notice. That happens whenever there is a turning of the tables. Indeed, all the great stories of the world, both political and religious, include such reversals and twists:

  • Buddha abandons his wealth and privilege to become a pauper and find enlightenment.
  • Meshach, Shadrach, and Abednego get rescued from the fiery furnace.
  • Jesus gets lifted up from a seemingly ignominious death.
  • Mohammad goes from pariah to prophet.
  • Confucius goes from scoundrel to sage.
  • Gandhi turns the tables on the British in India.
  • Mandela turns the tables on white rule in South Africa.

Revolutions, both violent and nonviolent, are the stuff of history (usually written by the victors). So we tell the story of Martin Luther King, Jr. and honor him with a holiday. Now, however, comes the real honor as Barack H. Obama comes to power. It is the culmination of many “weary years and silent tears.”

Please join me in wishing him well and in doing what we can to make this latest turning of the tables a gift to all. I love Alexander’s vision of love as the mightiest word, particularly “love with no need to pre-empt grievance.” That has been the orientation that President Obama has taken in his leadership to date; it’s not about vilifying the past but vivifying the future. And that will become the focus of my next Provisions’ series, starting next week, on the living energy of needs. I hope to meet you there.

Coaching Inquiries: Where do you turn for inspiration? Who lifts your spirit? What stories and poems speak to you? When have you embraced a turning of the tables? How can your life become richer, more satisfying, and more fulfilling? Who can you talk with about this?

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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..

I’ve been reading your Provisions, each week, for more than four years. You are a great inspiration for me. I want to commend you on this inaugural poem. Your writings are pointed and powerful.
As the sister in your last Provision, I am happy to say that our church occasionally joins in worship with the African-American congregation that we share our building with for an uplifting and love-filled worship experience. It is a step in the right direction. I think that a bridge is being built slowly from both directions but indeed we have a long span to still construct before we are truly one-nation under God! Thanks for the Provision and may I be able to add one bolt to that bridge!
I wish I could share your enthusiasm over the future of President Obama and his administration. From everything he pledged to do during his campaign, to the speeches he’s made on his historic train trip, his proposals scare me. We will withstand this, but the consequences and long term costs of Obama’s presidency are the things that keep me up at night.
Can you tell me if there is any truth to this acai berry and bromolite stuff? Does stuff really build up in your colon over the years that requires using this product to clean it out? Will acai berry pills really speed up your metabolism and give you energy? (Ed. Note: No, no, and no. I would not spend the money on them. Stay with a high-fiber diet emphasizing lots of fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables.)
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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