Elizabeth Alexander: “Praise Song for the Day”


Praise Song for the Day

A Poem for Barack Obama’s 2009 Presidential Inauguration


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.


From Praise Song for the Day. Copyright © 2009 by Elizabeth Alexander. Used by permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of Graywolf Press, www.graywolfpress.org. This chapbook is available for order here.


Elizabeth Alexander—poet, educator, memoirist, scholar, and cultural advocate—is president of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the nation’s largest funder in arts, culture, and the humanities in higher education. Dr. Alexander has held distinguished professorships at Smith College, Columbia University, and Yale University, where she taught for fifteen years and chaired the African American Studies Department. She is a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, serves on the Pulitzer Prize Board, and co-designed the Art for Justice Fund. Notably, Alexander composed and delivered “Praise Song for the Day” for the inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2009 and is author or coauthor of fourteen books. Her book of poems, American Sublime, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 2006, and her memoir, The Light of the World, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Biography in 2015. [Source here]

Watch a video of Elizabeth Alexander reading “Praise Song for the Day” at the 2009 Inauguration of Barak Obama here.


Poet’s Note

Here is what Elizabeth Alexander had to say about “Praise Song for the Day” at a reading for Verses for Hope, a poetry pop-up reading conducted by Maria Popova of Brainpickings in conjunction with the Academy of American Poets in 2016. Popova includes a video of Alexander’s reading at Verses for Hope, along with other insights, at the link below.

I have thought back to this exact time eight years ago, when I was given the honor of my life [and] asked to represent American poets —all my people—to compose and read a poem for [Barack Obama’s] inauguration in 2009. And I really thought, taking on that job, about the continuum of poets, living and dead, who I felt with me and around me at all times. And I really understood very profoundly what it was to be one of many vessels of the word, coming forward. And I tried to think about … my mother and father—Walt Whitman and Gwendolyn Brooks—they were with me all the time, saying, “Listen, listen: different voices, multivocality, polyphony, gumbo yaya.” Everything happening at once—right? All of that is what brought the country to that profoundly hopeful moment.

And I think it’s important to remember that in that moment, thinking always of our elders, that was a beautiful moment that so many elders never thought they’d live to see. So there are things that we don’t yet know, that we don’t think we’re going to live to see, that are also going to give us power and beauty if we hold up our own. […] We hope that’s what poems do. So I want to read [“Praise Song for the Day”] … and just to say that everyone for whom this poem was meaningful, those people are still here—it’s us. We’re still here. So we just have to really, really, really dust ourselves off and do our work. That’s all there is to it—love each other, do your work. That’s all there is to it.” [Source here ]


Commentary by Amanda Moore, Contributing Editor

I wasn’t one of the lucky ones who traveled to Washington D.C., on a cold weekend in January 2009 to watch the inaugural festivities for President Barack Obama, though I knew a few people who did. They returned home with stories of a joyous, convivial atmosphere in the city and an electric excitement felt as they wandered to various events and exhibits, encountering crowded Metro cars, overbooked restaurants, packed hotels, and yet none of the frustration or anger that might accompany those conditions. Instead, my friends reported, people made room, scooted down, bought drinks for strangers, shouted hellos on busy streets. The crowds were generally welcoming and inclusive, caught up in the spirit and hope Obama’s inauguration represented. Maybe my memory is clouded by a haze of nostalgia, but it seems nearly impossible to imagine such unity and excitement today. When I read today’s poem by Elizabeth Alexander, though, I feel transported back to those feelings and recapture some of that goodness and love, that hope, vibrating deep inside.

In my voting lifetime, several presidential inaugurations have included inaugural poets, but in fact, only five poets have ever held the distinction: Robert Frost read for John F. Kennedy in 1961, Maya Angelou for Bill Clinton in 1993, Miller Williams for Clinton in 1997, Elizabeth Alexander for Barack Obama in 2009, and Richard Blanco for Obama in 2013. To read these poems and see some of them on video, or to learn about the improvisation that saved Frost’s reading when glare from the snow made him unable to see his page, visit the Library of Congress’s blog here.

Although inaugural poems are relatively infrequent, occasional poems—works written to commemorate a special event or occasion—are common. Early examples in Greek often focused on battles or conflicts, not unlike later poems such as Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” or Yeats’s “Easter 1916”. We still see occasional poems in the form of odes, elegies, and poems written for weddings and other ceremonies. It’s arguable that anything sparking a poem results in an “occasional poem,” but I reserve the term for something a little more formal or codified. As a poet, I find the idea of being commissioned to write an occasional poem quite daunting—these works are usually meant for public presentation, consumption, and performance—and I worry about doing the occasion justice. Just imagine Alexander’s task then: commemorating the ascension of the very first Black American to the highest office of one of the most powerful countries in the world, a country built on the slavery and oppression of Black people.

Alexander’s poem is a marvel because it works against the commemoration of a single event, focusing instead on ordinary, daily activities: “Each day we go about our business.” In free-verse tercets, which provide a comfortable-but-not-restraining form, she sketches a modern existence where “[a]ll about us is noise.” Regular people are doing the work of “repairing the things in need of repair,” indicating perhaps a need for change or improvement while also looking for transcendence and beauty, “trying to make music somewhere.” Instead of presidents and politicians, Alexander gives us a “woman and her son,” a “farmer,” and a “teacher.” In addition to these living embodiments of our country’s important if unsung workers, Alexander reminds us that we carry as well “our ancestors on our tongues,” whom she introduces in the second stanza, inviting them in to remind us that we don’t walk in this world—or in this poem—alone.

After celebrating the dailiness that surrounds this special occasion, the poem considers the larger significance of the inauguration and what it might mean going forward as a nation. “I know there’s something better down the road,” the speaker declares with hope, though she is quick to acknowledge the uncertainty: “We walk into that which we cannot yet see.” The poem then pivots toward the past, employing the imperative to “[s]ay it plain” and reminding us again of the ancestors, many of whom “have died for this day.” Urging us to be hopeful while looking toward an uncertain future, Alexander reminds us to “[s]ing” the ancestors, to extend our praise song backwards as well as forwards,  and to recognize the labor this day was built upon by singing the enslaved workers who “laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, // picked the cotton.” Such simple labors, let alone atrocities like slavery, are not often acknowledged while celebrating days of national importance, a silence that too often erases the truth of our country’s origins. Alexander refuses this erasure and calls forth the ancestors, the enslaved people who built their own prisons, the “glittering edifices / they would then keep clean and work inside of.” What a particularly satisfying irony! This time, on this one very unique occasion, the Black American who will work in the “glittering edifices” of the White House and the Oval Office will do so not as a laborer or domestic servant but as the leader of the free world. Years after the inauguration, Michelle Obama wrestled with the same contradiction when, at the 2016 Democratic Convention, she said, “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.” [Source here]

As Alexander’s poem continues, it slips in and out of anaphora, the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of a line, while calling for praise songs and love. I cannot help but recall Lucille Clifton with each of these repetitions. Last week, we featured several Clifton poems along with a poem Alexander wrote in homage to Clifton following her death. I find such powerful resonance between these two poets who acknowledge the harrowing aspects of their lives as Black women while still adopting—and urging us all toward—a  hopeful stance. As in Alexander’s inaugural poem, Clifton frequently seeks to lift up our dailiness for praise, writing odes to her hips, uterus, menstruation, dinner greens, boats on the horizon, family members, and more. Her own “Praise Song” is addressed to her Aunt Blanche and concludes:

Praise to the arms which understood
little or nothing of what it meant
but welcomed her in without judgment.

Alexander, too, seems to want to encourage and praise acceptance without judgment as she urges us to “love with no need to pre-empt grievance.” Such love is all-encompassing and recognizes the importance of accepting the bad along with the good

Ultimately, “Praise Song for the Day” manages to celebrate the momentousness of the inaugural occasion while also foregrounding and praising the struggles behind it. This duality, something Popova calls “simultaneity and plurality [of perspectives],” is subsumed by a larger question: “What if the mightiest word is love?” The mighty love is not a familiar or easy one, but something more transcendent, “beyond marital, filial, national.” What feels particularly powerful to me as I revisit the poem in 2020 is that this call to love is grounded in a hope capturing the intense pride and possibility so many of us felt that day, whether there in D.C. or home on the couch tuned in alongside 38 million other viewers to watch a poet take her place on the stage to celebrate a president who represented positive change. Sure, I wonder now where that hopefulness has gone and what it has gotten us. But maybe we can keep this poem as a beacon, a touchstone, or prompt to enact in our daily lives a love that embraces both pride and pain, that encompasses hope alongside the recognition of our country’s complicated history, and that welcomes our ancestors and their deeds and “casts a widening pool of light.” The love Alexander envisions is complex but possible, and the poem is a strong reminder to be clear about all of our country’s legacies—sorrows as well as triumphs—while still singing a “praise song for walking forward in that light.”



Contributing editor Amanda Moore‘s poetry has appeared in journals and anthologies including Zyzzyva, Cream City Review, Tahoma Literary Review, and Best New Poets, and she is the recipient of writing awards from The Writing Salon, Brush Creek Arts Foundation, and The Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts. She received her MFA from Cornell University, where she served as Managing Editor for EPOCH magazine and was a lecturer in the John S. Knight Writing Institute. Currently a 2019 Fellow at The Writers Grotto, Amanda is a high school teacher and Marin Poetry Center Board member, and she lives by the beach in the Outer Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco with her husband and daughter.


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