Multivocality, Polyphony, Gumbo Yaya: Elizabeth Alexander, Barack Obama’s Inaugural Poet, on the Power of Poetry in Moments of Powerlessness
“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.”
By Maria Popova
Four days after the 2016 election, I teamed up with the Academy of American Poets for an emergency pop-up reading of poetry we called Verses for Hope. We invited beloved writers to each read one or two poems that nourish resilience and restore our faith in the human spirit as we wade through these troubled and divisive times. Musicians bookended the reading with two tributes to Leonard Cohen. Although it all came together in less than 48 hours, nearly 200 people showed up in the flesh, thousands tuned in online, and a humbling roster of readers agreed to participate.
Among them was Elizabeth Alexander, who eight years earlier had become the fourth poet in history to read at a U.S. presidential inauguration with the poem she wrote to welcome Barack Obama to the presidency.
After some poignant words about the contrasting landscapes of possibility then and now, and how we can wrest meaning and empowerment out of our present predicament, Alexander read two poems — “won’t you celebrate with me” by Lucille Clifton, that timeless ode to the irrepressible tenacity of the human spirit amid oppression, and “Praise Song for the Day,” the poem she herself had written for and read at Barack Obama’s inauguration, found in her collection Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990–2010 (public library).
Some context lost beyond the moment: Alexander opens with a warm remark about the hip-hop dance troupe performing nearby. (Just after our introductory remarks at the Washington Square Park fountain, these young men let us know that they perform there every Sunday for their livelihood. So we decided to transplant the entire operation — equipment, sign, books, and crowd — to another part of the park.) She then references W.H. Auden’s acutely timely poem “September 1, 1939,” which science writer Maria Konnikova had just read after a prefatory note about Auden’s famous one-word edit, perhaps the most poignant in the history of literature.
Transcribed highlights below — please enjoy:
Echoing Rebecca Solnit’s assertion that troubled times are also the wellspring of transformative movements and “full engagement requires the ability to perceive both,” Alexander insists on the necessity of simultaneity and plurality:
It’s good having more than one thing going on at a time, which reminds me that there is more than one thing happening at a time right now and that something very frightening and enormous and awful happened on election day. There are a lot of people in this country and there are a lot of forces and a lot of ways of believing and going about our work, and a lot of love, and a lot of energy. And I think that we have to bear that in mind, always — there is more than one thing happening at once. So, as bad as this is, it’s not the only thing.
She considers the countercultural empowerment that black women have modeled for all of us:
I’ve been thinking a lot about the philosophy that black women have offered this country over time — a very, very necessary philosophy right know, when you think about what it is to come from no position of presumed power. What does it mean to start off as three-fifths of a human being in the eyes of the law and still find your way, in a meaningful way, into the populace? What does it mean to survive when you’re not supposed to survive?
There’s a powerful philosophy there that says, “Nobody gives you shit — nobody gives it to you.” I was raised by people — my parents, my mom and dad — who said things like, “Well, you didn’t expect they were going to give you the keys to the bank?” Or, I’d be at my little struggles, and my dad has actually said to me, “Well, Harriet Tubman figured it out.” Now, that’s sometimes not really so helpful — but the point is that Harriet Tubman figured something out. And that is serious. And that is not slip. That is actually a real challenge to our resources — to say what does it mean, what can we learn, from the resilience of people who were never at the center of power, who never expected to be given power, but who nonetheless found their way to make this amazing country.
I think these lessons are going to be more and more important.
In a sentiment evocative of Albert Camus’s notion that in our attachment to life “there is something stronger than all the ills in the world,” Alexander considers the necessity, the vitality, of keeping our will to live alive:
We have to laugh and we have to dance and we have to remember to do those things that keep us alive and keep us human and keep us together — because we do have that.
Where is Lucille Clifton? Well, she’s here with us in her words.
WON’T YOU CELEBRATE WITH ME
by Lucille Clifton
won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
Echoing Chinua Achebe’s insistence on the plurality of perspectives, Alexander reflects the devotion to pluralism that undergirded the poem she wrote for Obama’s inauguration — a devotion all the more critically necessary for all of us today:
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.
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.
Complement with Alexander on power, possibility, and the ethic of love and her beautiful meta-poem about what poetry does for the human spirit, then join me in supporting the important and salvatory work of the Academy of American Poets.
Published November 17, 2016