Love With No Need to Preempt Grievance

In the Spring of 1979, my teacher made everyone in class stand up and give a brief prepared speech on "Why I Am Proud to Be an American". Times were tense in the San Francisco Bay Area then—Dan White had shot Milk and Moscone, and I think we were into odd/even gas rationing by then too. I don't remember what I told the class. I do remember the questions that filled my head: am I proud to be an American? Should I be? Why?

Of course, my teacher wasn't asking any of those questions. My American pride was a foregone conclusion—or else.

My assignment was not to think about my country, just to praise it, and by extension, to praise my classmates and myself.

I am grateful that my later education did emphasize critical thinking, but living in America the past eight years has been like Kindergarten all over again.

In answering yesterday's question of what I will miss least about the Bush administration, I said that "the constant message that any questioning of the administration was treasonous and un-American, that 'you're either with us or against us', is at the top of the list."

Yesterday, I was drifting along through Elizabeth Alexander's inaugural poem, Praise Song for the Day, when her words, "Love with no need to preempt grievance", sliced a knot. The message of the entire inaugural address suddenly became real. I had heard Obama's recognition that "greatness is never a given"; his exhortation to "begin again the work of remaking America" and to help build a government we can trust. But with Alexander's words, I felt it. I felt the invitation both to love my country and to criticize it. The address and the poem together called upon us to take issue and to take action.

Alexander's poem is being criticized by Carol Rumens at The Guardian for being "too prosy" and for hewing too close to the themes and language of Obama's address; Adam Kirsch at The New Republic calls it "bureaucratic verse". I agree there are some cringe-worthy clichés in the poem, and I sensed that Alexander was under pressure not only to stay in tune with Obama's language, but also to avoid upstaging it. However, if a purpose of poetry is to distill an idea that hits both the brain and the gut, then Praise Song for the Day worked for me on this day.

Below the fold is the full text of Praise Song for the Day with line breaks, from One Poet's Notes:

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.

—Elizabeth Alexander
There is video and more analysis at The Guardian and One Poet's Notes

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