Poetry and Great Events

Promoted. Originally published 2009-01-21 17:30:02 -0500. -- GH

Poets are seldom put on the spot to speak on national television next to a popular president, as Elizabeth Alexander did on Tuesday, abruptly standing in front of a crowd of millions. Before I took poetry seriously, I once addressed a large crowd on the Mall in Washington protesting the war in Vietnam. I was so overwhelmed standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King Jr. famously spoke and facing a sea of expectant faces that I don’t remember what I said.

Poetry helps us remember what’s important. Alexander, a widely published poet, reminded us what was important about the path of Barack Obama’s amazing journey from obscure community organizer to president of the United States.   

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark the will of someone and then others who said, "I need to see what's on the other side; I know there's something better down the road," she said in the central passage of her poem, “Praise Song for the Day.”

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.

Alexander, who was born in New York City and now teaches at Yale, was only the fourth poet to speak at a presidential inauguration. The first, Robert Frost, was a national icon when tapped to honor John F. Kennedy’s swearing in ceremony in 1961. As a senior in high school in a small town in New York state, I barely paid attention to what the white-haired old poet said on TV.  

But JFK understood what I had yet to learn. There is a powerful, popular history conveyed in poetry that tells people’s stories in ways that don’t always toe the official line. Some years later, many Vietnam veterans including myself tapped into that history to present a dissident GI view of the war in Vietnam that Kennedy’s actions launched. 

This is what JFK had in mind, as reported recently in The New York Times: “A few years after Frost recited ‘The Gift Outright’ at Kennedy’s inauguration, the president had the chance to speak some public words about Frost, who died in 1963 at 88. Less than a month before his own death Kennedy appeared at the groundbreaking of the Robert Frost Library at Amherst College.

“’When power corrupts, poetry cleanses,’ Kennedy said. ‘When power leads man towards his arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence.’”

Elizabeth Alexander—whose father was a Harlem community organizer when Frost recited his poem beside JFK and later, under President Carter, became the first African American Secretary of the Army—has written powerfully about the ugly side of power. In a poem titled “Smile,” cited in a profile of her in The New York Times, she wrote:

When I see a black man smiling
like that, nodding and smiling
with both hands visible, mouthing
“Yes, Officer,” across the street,
I think of my father, who taught us
the words “cooperate,” “officer,”
to memorize badge numbers,
who has seen black men shot at
from behind in the warm months north.

As Obama too surely knows, poetry is not all smiley, pretty words on TV.

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and remove some residual <div> and <span> codes from the HTML to ensure this formatted properly on the page; I hope it came out ok.

If I messed up anything, please let me know and tell me what, so I can correct it.

Thanks for another very interesting piece.

  -- GH

Here's part of "Freedom's Plow":

Land created in common,
Dream nourished in common,
Keep your hand on the plow! Hold on!
If the house is not yet finished,
Don’t be discouraged, builder!
If the fight is not yet won,
Don’t be weary, soldier!
The plan and the pattern is here,
Woven from the beginning
Into the warp and woof of America:
Who said those things? Americans!
Who owns those words? America!
Who is America? You, me!
We are America!
To the enemy who would conquer us from without,
We say, NO!
To the enemy who would divide
And conquer us from within,
We say, NO!
To all the enemies of these great words:
We say, NO!

A long time ago,
An enslaved people heading toward freedom
Made up a song:
Keep Your Hand On The Plow! Hold On!
The plow plowed a new furrow
Across the field of history.
Into that furrow the freedom seed was dropped.
From that seed a tree grew, is growing, will ever grow.
That tree is for everybody,
For all America, for all the world.
May its branches spread and shelter grow
Until all races and all peoples know its shade.

We are living in an interminable succession of absurdities imposed by the myopic logic of short-term thinking.—Jacques-Yves Cousteau

Thanks for fixing the formatting. I'm still trying to get a handle on these secret codes and handshakes of the computer age. But I'm making progress!  

Don't ya wish we had this stuff back when!

I'm continuing the learning process and while it keeps our old minds active, like doing a puzzle, it can get frustrating.

"The wise man points to the stars and the fool sees only the finger - and discusses it 24/7 on cable."

I read your piece, and I really enjoyed your insights. I'm also a poet, so when I'm done here I'll be going to your site. Maybe I can learn something.

I'd also like to make you aware of a site called poetry.com.  It was started by a young poet who is a single mother and Staff Sgt. in the Marine Corps.  It's an excellent site, and it dedicated to bringing  traditional poetry into the lives of Hip hoppers and young people. It's a great place, and I'm sure they could benefit from your knowledge.  And you're provided with all of the tools to bring your art to life--They have a radio setup, you can upload videos, add spoken word pieces, and most importantly, a very respectful membership who are voracious in their desire to gather new knowledge.  So I think you'd fit like a glove.

When you visit leave me amessage so I can give you the lay of the land.

Eric L. Wattree

Eric L. Wattree

Religious bigotry: It's not that I hate everybody who doesn't look, think, and act like me - it's just that God does.

Hi Eric. Took a look at the poetry site and your site--nice layout on a theme I like.   



I hope to get to know you a lot better.  Here's a little something for you:

A Stately Old Ship

The stately old vessel limps weakly towards port

as the rolling storm begins.

Veracious vermin gnaw

its rotting hull,

destroying from within.

Colors that once flew proud and strong

in distant and exotic lands,

now flutter shamefully,

tattered and torn,

reflecting the flaws of man.


With cheers of fading greatness,

true patriots are scorned;

demagogues are lifted aloft,

while the ship of state we mourn.

But the old vessel

was made of sturdier stuff

by a different kind of man;

Storms and vermin and rotting hulls

it will easily withstand.


Waiting in port, a fresh new crew

eager to take command;

a new coat of paint, and fresh colors await,

the proud ship of state’s next stand.

Eric L.Wattree


Eric L. Wattree

Religious bigotry: It's not that I hate everybody who doesn't look, think, and act like me - it's just that God does.

Let's hope the ship of state stays afloat while the dryrot is being fixed.