Thank you to everyone who joined us for this session!
26 people, five of whom were new to our Monday eve VGS, participated in a text discussion of “Praise Song for the Day” by Elizabeth Alexander (text is below). On a day dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we made connections between the text and Dr. King’s words and actions, celebrating and remembering his ability to inspire others with his resolve. We began our session acknowledging that “there is lots going on” – both in the text and in our worlds.
A participant pointed us to see the many previous “conversations” necessary to bring together a community of people to see and appreciate the contributions of ordinary people’s work, have trust in each other, and build together. Another was struck by the word “walking”, present both at the beginning and at the end of the poem, collapsing time and space into “a whole world that we share”, even amidst the separations imposed by COVID-19 and the many solo walk we’ve been forced to initiate.
Many others were drawn tot the only question appearing in the poem: “What if the mightiest word is love?”. “It’s a question you can’t shy away from,” one participant observed, confessing an attempt to avoid formulating their own answer, only to find themselves trapped by it by the time of our second reading out loud. Others saw it as a call to action, evoking wishes to remember foundational lessons about loving others, and wishes that these words be extended to “policy and practice”. Others heard the poem as a sermon, an anthem, and an image of a patchwork quilt made of locations and (pre)occupations, with appreciation of the diversity and inclusion of multitudes. One participant saw associations to Marxist murals, morphing not as a specific ode to workers but an ode to love and deep community.
Before writing to the prompt, facilitators revealed that the poem was read at Obama’s inauguration.
Several participants read what they wrote as a “praise song to struggle.”
One reader described a rocky road strewn with obstacles but the speaker’s sights set on “the heavens with sunlight…sunset…and the Creator.”
Another began, “Who am I to denounce” and went on to reflect on a mother’s guidance–not always welcomed or even understood until adulthood.
In the spirit of Woody Guthrie, one reading praised quotidian actions such as writing, rising, having coffee, driving a car. This praise song goes on to include “those who work and those who don’t, those who pay taxes and those who cannot” extending respect to others.
And lastly, another reading (we hope others will be posted on the blog) called forth “cold air” as Alexander had on the January midday presidential inauguration in 2009 and depicting people donning coats, capes, and masks as they battle indifferent and unforgiving threats to health as they carried on their essential work.
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Praise Song for the Day BY ELIZABETH ALEXANDER A Poem for Barack Obama’s 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. Copyright © 2009 by Elizabeth Alexander. All rights reserved.