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Praise Song for the Day: Elizabeth Alexander's Inaugural Poem

posted: 1.26.09 by archived

Elizabeth Alexander was the fourth poet to be invited to read an inaugural poem at the swearing-in of a new American president (the others were Robert Frost at JFK’s ceremony [1961]; and Maya Angelou [1993] and Miller Williams [1997] at each of Bill Clinton’s ceremonies). It’s notoriously difficult, as reported by NPR’s Melissa Block and Salon’s blogger Jim Fisher, to write an ‘occasional poem’—a poem for a specific event. The best poets in this genre might be English poets of yore, such as John Milton, Samuel Johnson, and Andrew Marvell, whose livelihood sometimes relied on writing and performing such poems for a benefactor. Sandwiched between Barack Obama’s powerful speech, and Joseph Lowery’s spirited benediction, Alexander’s poem was challenged to live up to its potential as a nuanced, invigorating, and relevant form of expression. According to LA Times critic David L. Ulin, Salon writer Alex Koppelman and Poetry Foundation Commentators, she had mixed success. Do you think Alexander’s poem “Praise Song for the Day” rose to the occasion? Take our poll at the end of this post.

Teaching the Inaugural Poem

Discuss occasional poems with your students. What makes them so difficult to write?

Specifically discuss Barack Obama’s inauguration. President Obama’s speech acknowledged the civil rights victory that his presidency represents, but that is not the only thing he focused on. Ask your students to watch his inaugural speech once again and list the main points he makes.

After you have discussed the values, ideas, and promises Barack Obama put forward in his speech, ask your students to consider how well Elizabeth Alexander’s poem captured the spirit and the agenda of the new administration. You might also ask students to consider two other poems written for the occasion, Nobel Prize-winner Derek Walcott’s poem and John Shaw’s rap poem. How well did these poems capture the significance of the occasion?

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Categories: Discussion, Joelle Hann (moderator)
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2 Responses to “Praise Song for the Day: Elizabeth Alexander's Inaugural Poem”

  1. LMonagan Says:

    Assignment inspired by E Alexander’s inaugural poem:

    “What if the mightiest word is love?” – Discuss

  2. Traci Gardner Says:

    Here’s another good resource for using Wordle in the classroom: Sixteen Interesting Ways to use Wordle in the Classroom”

    The examples are of younger kids, but the ideas are useful for any classroom.