Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Where Be the Linebreaks? Notes on the Second Inaugural Poem

Now that the hubbub about Elizabeth Alexander's inaugural poem "Praise Song for the Day" has subsided a bit—and now that Graywolf Press has slated the verse for a no-doubt lucrative press run of 100,000 copies—it's perhaps time to wonder whether anyone else noted the second poem at Barack Obama's inauguration: the poetry that framed the benediction offered by the Rev. Joseph Lowery. Long after the polite applause for Alexander's prosy free verse waned, Lowery's rhymes came unexpectedly and did nearly everything an inaugural poem should do—and perhaps more. Where, one might wonder, is his contract with Graywolf? If that's too bold a question, one might instead simply wonder, "Where are the linebreaks?" for most transcripts of the benediction in fact render Lowery's poetry as prose.

Lowery's benediction begins with rhyme, as he quotes the final stanza of James Weldon Johnson's "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," signaling to the crowd, as only poetry can, that what's taking place—or what's about to take place—is going to take place outside the realm of ordinary, quotidian speech and thus requires a special discursive register. This ceremonial herald is why, in fact, an inauguration includes poetry and partly why Alexander's loosey-goosey free verse failed to impress so many listeners. Here is that opening, though you may prefer to hear Lowery himself before you read on.

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
thou who has brought us thus far along the way,
thou who has by thy might
led us into the light,
keep us forever in the path, we pray,
lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee,
lest our hearts, drunk with wine of the world, we forget thee.
Shadowed beneath they hand
may we forever stand
true to thee, O God,
and true to our native land.

As this suggests, inaugural rhyme doesn't have to be regular, and the lines don't have to be metronomic. In fact, the Lowery/Johnson opening is made all the more engaging by the interplay between the shorter three-beat lines and the longer five-beat lines: we know the rhymes are coming, but we don't know exactly when. Poetry & Popular Culture listens with rapt attention as Lowery's reading of the verse works on two simultaneous but different registers: at the same time that its abstract language of "tears" and "light" and "hearts" leaves room for every listener's imagination, it also resonates on a level more specific to African-American history, as Johnson's verse has long been called the "Black National Anthem." Lines like "God of our weary years, / God of our silent tears" immediately summon into the present moment the religious rhetoric and cadences of African-American survival and struggles for civil rights in the U.S.—only to then marry that rhetoric (and that past) to a statement of national loyalty on the day when the first African-American is sworn in as president, a day when some of those civil rights ideals have, in fact, materialized. Lowery's quotation of Johnson makes not just the voices of Johnson and Lowery present, but all the voices that have sung "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" over the years.

Once the rhyme establishes the sacredness of the moment, Lowery can move into prose for the bulk of his benediction: it's poetic, perhaps, but it's not poetry. Not poetry, that is, until his conclusion which does rhyme and, in so doing, wraps the benediction inside of a poem. Or wraps it between two poems, rather, because the rhyme Lowery leaves us with is nothing like the rhyme that inaugurated this second inaugural poem. Here's his conclusion:

Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when:

black will not be asked to get back,
when brown can stick around
when yellow will be mellow
when the red man can get ahead, man
and when white will embrace what is right.

Let all those who do justice and love mercy say amen.

These rhymes recall the political and pop cultural slogans of the 1960s (not to mention the 1966 Donovan hit song), connecting 2009 with the civil rights movement and reminding the crowd—and Obama—of the history that made this day and its benediction possible. At the same time, the slogans resonate differently now than they would have in the 1960s, so that while they connect the civil rights movement to the inauguration, they also illustrate a distinct historical distance from that moment. Like, who can really use "when yellow will be mellow" or "red man get ahead, man" with a straight face in 2009? The fact that the crowd, and Obama himself, responded with laughter after each line suggests they got it as well—that while the sentiment and political ideals of these slogans is still relevant, the rhetoric we use to talk about those ideals has changed for the better. We know we can laugh at the lines—and at the end of a prayer at that!—because we recognize that the current multiracial America being represented by Obama's inauguration is much too complex for the simple categories of "black," "brown," "red," "yellow" and "white" to handle. This is not nostalgia at work; Lowery's lines help us see and feel (and feel thankful for) the distance that the country has come since the 1960s without, at the same time, dismissing the civil rights movement's imperative for social justice in the present day.

Lowery is, Poetry & Popular Culture would submit, signifyin(g) on these 1960s catchphrases in order to simultaneously show us the new ways we think and talk about race (or should think and talk about race), and to remind Obama and the rest of the country of the debts we nonetheless owe to the decade that produced those sorts of catchphrases. At the same time, the fact that this final verse so clearly harnesses the rhythms of African-American music and other popular poetic forms makes us feel like Lowery is signifying on Alexander's "Praise Song for the Day" as well. Not only do his rhymes answer Alexander's establishment-friendly free verse with a poem more decidedly African-American, popular, and oral in orientation—that is, something more appropriate for the moment—but in so doing it critiques "Praise Song for the Day" (albeit obliquely) for not owning and making use of these resources more aggressively.

I have to admit that I was a little embarrassed at how Alexander's poem was received with a dutiful, classroom-like attention and polite clapping by the crowd in D.C. Surely, I thought, poetry can do better than that. And it did—just a little bit later than I'd expected. Not only did Lowery's versifying establish the gravity of the inaugural moment, but it showed the nation its relationship to the past while making its listeners laugh at the same time. No wonder when Lowery said, "Let all those who do justice and love mercy say amen," the crowd answered him several times. Could it be that just one of those amens was meant for the poetry as well?