CLOSE READING: Elizabeth Alexander’s inaugural poem

The poem that Elizabeth Alexander offered at Barack Obama’s inauguration, “Praise Song for the Day,” is a poem whose meaning has to be teased out. It works like many contemporary American poems in this way—the first time through, all that happens is you fall for the sound and cadence and are moved by some of the images.

Young man playing steel drums

‘Someone is trying to make music somewhere, | with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum.’ Photo by Flickr user Bitpicture.

The experience is similar to listening to a new song on the radio—on the first listening, what you hear is the tune and the basic gist of the song. In both cases (hearing/reading a poem and hearing a new single), there is a lot you miss. It’s not until you go back and hear it again (and again) that you begin to peel apart the layers and see what is really going on.

This post is my offer to walk with you through another reading of the inauguration poem and share how I am experiencing it and some of the interesting things I notice, including what I think the poem means. I don’t expect to get in the habit of explicating poems on this blog, but this is a special occasion, right?

The Meaning of Elizabeth Alexander’s Inaugural Poem in Simple Terms

Elizabeth Alexander’s poem is at its heart a celebration of the moment. The poet gently places a hand on our shoulders and politely turns us so that we can see the glorious sight that she sees.

Here is the moment in history as the poet sees it: “Someone is trying to make music somewhere,” and today, with the inauguration of President Obama and all it signifies, that someone stands (with the rest of us who hope and struggle) “on the brink” of success in that endeavor. That someone struggling to “make music… with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum” (which is really all of us) can now launch into a rich and melodious praise song.

That, in a poetic nutshell, is what this moment in time is. That is the central “message” and theme of this poem.

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