E Elizabeth Alexander

Praise Song for the Day by Elizabeth Alexander

Elizabeth Alexander read the poem, ‘Praise Song for the Day’ at the inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2009. It is an occasional poem praising the Americans’ role in nation-building.

‘Praise Song for the Day’ may sound like a poem dedicated only to the inauguration ceremony of the President. But, it is much more than that. Though this poem has an adulatory tone, in several instances, the poet ironically comments on the current society. She praises the role of each American who, by doing their work diligently, contributes to the nation. The long history of America shows how the foundation on which the contemporary citizens are standing, was created. She thinks the future, they are hoping for, is not far away. If they are dedicated to the cause, they will definitely achieve it.

Praise Song for the Day by Elizabeth Alexander

 

Summary

‘Praise Song for the Day’ is an optimistic poem describing the role of Americans in the betterment of the nation and how they are heading towards a bright future. 

The poem begins with a critical point-of-view regarding how modern citizens interact with each other. Something is missing in their language. Alexander thinks, “All about us is noise.”

She describes how people belonging to different professions help the nation to progress. Afterward, there is a reference to the path shown by the Americans who lived before. Without their contribution, the road to advancement would have remained unseen or undiscovered. That’s why she praises everyone who was there for the country. She, along with her fellow citizens, is walking forward to the light of the future shown by their ancestors. They are quite optimistic about the destination the road is leading them to.

You can read the full poem here.

 

Structure

This poem consists of fourteen three-line stanzas and a one-line coda at the end. Each tercet does not have a specific rhyme scheme. The poet writes this poem in free verse, incorporating unrhymed stanzas to reflect modernity. The absence of rhyming does not make this poem sound monotonous. In place of that, the use of internal rhymings and repetitions sustains the flow of the poem.

If a reader metrically analyzes the poem, it can be found that there are a total of ten syllables in each line. The stress falls on the second syllable of each foot. For this reason, the overall poem is composed in iambic pentameter. There are a few metrical variations alongside that.

 

Literary Devices

The most important literary device of this poem is enjambment. Alexander uses this device throughout the text for connecting the lines and maintaining an unbreakable flow inside the text. One can also find the use of irony in the first stanza.

The second stanza begins with an epigram. Besides, there is a palilogy in the first line. There is metonymy in the usage of the word, “ancestors.” By using this word, the poet refers to one’s ancestry.

In the third and fourth stanzas, the use of asyndeton is present. In the following stanza, there is an anaphora. The use of alliteration can also be found in this poem. As an example, “Praise song for struggles,” contains an alliteration of the “s” sound. Likewise, the poet uses some other literary devices in this text which will be discussed in the analysis below.

 

Detailed Analysis

Lines 1–6

Each day we go about our business,

(…)

one of our ancestors on our tongues.

As is mentioned earlier, Elizabeth wrote the poem for the presidential inauguration of Obama. The poem begins with the imagery of human interaction in the modern age. According to the poet, each day they go about their business and walk past each other. Their eyes don’t meet others’. Sometimes, they try to speak to their fellow passengers. But, most of the time, they choose silent over healthy interaction. This first tercet, in this way, depicts the absence of compassion and brotherhood in the modern world.

The second tercet makes an ironic statement at the very beginning. The speaker thinks all about modern people is nothing other than noise. It means nowadays people do not interact with each other nicely. Their language consists of noise and bramble. Alexander uses the “bramble” as a symbol for criticism.

To throw light on the mindset of people, Alexander uses the term “thorn and din.” It is again a metaphorical reference to terse words one says to another. Lastly, she refers to one’s class consciousness in the lines, “each/ one of our ancestors on our tongues.”

 

Lines 7–12

Someone is stitching up a hem, darning

(…)

with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

In this section, there are a few images concerning the people involved in different professions. Alexander refers to a person who is stitching up a hem and darning a hole in a uniform. After reading this line, It seems that she is referring to a mother.

Thereafter, the speaker refers to a person who is patching a tire or repairing the things in need of repair. Each one of them, in some way or the other, is helping others to progress.

There is a person who is trying to compose music somewhere. He or she is creating an unconventional kind of music with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum. This section consists of auditory imagery. Besides, the person also had a cello, boom box, harmonica, and above all his voice. In this way, this section throws light on the culture of contemporary America.

 

Lines 13–18

A woman and her son wait for the bus.

(…)

words to consider, reconsider.

This section presents an image of a woman and her son waiting for the bus. Along with that, there is an image of a farmer looking at the sky to understand how the weather is likely to be the next day.

Alexander talks about a classroom in the following lines. After reading the line, a reader can visualize a teacher telling the students to take out pencils and begin their lesson. The images, depicted in this section, illustrate how each American is diligently invested in their work.

In the following tercet, she again refers to the “words” modern citizens use. Sometimes they use spiny or smooth words. While some only whisper or declaim their words. But, somehow, in this section, the speaker’s mood is not critical about the use of words. She rather remarks that each voice should be considered. After thorough reconsideration, one can understand what others are trying to say.

 

Lines 19–24

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark

(…)

We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

In the seventh stanza of the poem, the poetic persona refers to dirt roads and highways. Those roads mark the will of those who created those. Previously one might have thought of discovering what was on the other side. To know what was waiting for them on the other side, they built the road on which the present generation is treading on.

The “dirt roads” and “highways” are metaphors. These metaphors refer to the wisdom, hard work, and learning that created a pathway for the present generation to achieve the American Dream.

The following section is written from the perspective of a first-person speaker. The presence of the voice makes this poem an example of a lyric. In this section, the voice proclaims, “there’s something better down the road.” She admits that the path leading before them will lead the country in the right direction.

They require a place where they can be safe. The reason is they have not seen the future yet. There is only a belief that the future will not be discouraging.

 

Lines 25–30

Say it plain: that many have died for this day.

(…)

they would then keep clean and work inside of.

The present moment is the time to express one’s gratitude to those who have died for this day. Through this poem, the poet wants to sing their names who took America to such heights.

Long ago, they laid the train tracks and raised the bridges (a reference to the workers). Some of them picked cotton and lettuce (a reference to the farmers). While some of them built brick by brick to make the glittering edifices of the country’s past.

Due to these reasons, the poetic persona wants to thank them for their hard work. If they were not there in the past, the country would have never achieved what it has achieved till now. In this way, the speaker makes the message of the poem clear to the readers.

 

Lines 31–36

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.

(…)

than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?

In this section, Alexander praises their struggle, long lost in the pages of history. This song praises the present moment. It is a song for every hand-lettered sign. The “hand-lettered sign” is a metaphorical reference to the bureaucracy that expressed their concern for the development of the nation.

The speaker also thanks the mothers who always figure out how the kitchen tables would look like. Her contributions to her family as well as the country are also commendable.

In the twelfth tercet, there is an allusion to the Great Commandment of Jesus Christ. According to the poet, some persons live by Christian ideals and the ideology upholds the idea of asceticism. Whereas, she thinks that the mightiest word of the universe is “love.” It is the same message spread by Jesus. In the last line, to depict this idea, a rhetorical question is used.

 

Lines 37–43

Love beyond marital, filial, national,

(…)

praise song for walking forward in that light.

The last section begins with a description of the nature of love mentioned in the previous stanza. According to the poet, love should be beyond the marital, filial, and national level. By saying this, she is referring to a pure state of love that casts a “widening pool of light.”

This love purifies the soul and promotes the idea of peace. It does not need to pre-empt someone’s grievance. The reason is, if one truly nurtures it, there will not be any grievance in the heart.

The last tercet of the poem quickly returns to the present day. The speaker says in the sharp sparkle of the winter air, they can make anything with this “word”. Any sentence may start, on the brink of that moment. It is up to the citizens concerning how they compose their songs for the betterment of the nation. Besides, in the last line of the tercet, the poet uses tautology.

 

Historical Context

Elizabeth Alexander recited the poem at the inauguration of President Obama on January 20, 2009. Alexander became the fourth poet read at the United States presidential inauguration. She was a personal friend of Obama and she was invited to recite the poem at the inauguration. After Obama delivered his inaugural address, Alexander read her poem. Whatsoever, the poem met with poor reception. Some critics were of the view that her poem was too prosaic or her recitation was too dramatic. While some found her poem dull and bureaucratic. This poem, like other inaugural poems, depicts the thriving American culture always hopeful concerning the betterment of the nation.

 

Similar Poetry

The following poems are similar to the themes present in Elizabeth Alexander’s poem.

You can also read about all the presidential inauguration poems of the United States and the best-loved poems on hope.

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A complete expert on poetry, Sudip graduated with a first-class B.A. Honors Degree in English Literature. He has a passion for analyzing poetic works with a particular emphasis on literary devices and scansion.
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