Words for the president

Trouw-journalist Peter Henk Steenhuis and the Amsterdam-based philosopher Theo de Boer talk on a regular basis about poetry and philosophy. Recently they took a closer look at Elizabeth Alexanders poem ‘Praise song for the day’, that resounded in January 2009 during the inauguration of president Obama.

“Anyone who has ever driven a car on the sixteen-lane highways in Los Angeles”, says De Boer, “recognizes the complex situation that is the result of the will of our fellow man in this verse, even if he has the best of American intentions: to go somewhere better.”

During the Inauguration of Barack Obama in January 2009 two million people heard Elizabeth Alexander praise the day. "Despite the immense audience," says philosopher Theo de Boer "I still felt that this poem did not come across. Alexander's words were drowned out by the noise." All the more reason to revisit it.

Unlike Europe, the dominant philosophical tradition in the United States is pragmatism: a philosophy of common sense. “American thinkers don’t ask worrisome questions about the existence of fellow man. For them it is self-evident that action and reflection must benefit the community. And it is not without reason that they have a much older tradition of the Poet Laureate who speaks on behalf of the community. In the Netherlands, on the other hand, poets since the Tachtigers (‘Movement of Eighteen Eight’) have turned away from the community.”

Elizabeth Alexander starts with the words: ‘Each day we go about our business’, translated by Erik Bindervoet and Robbert-Jan Henkes as: ‘Elke dag doen we onze dingen' [Every day we do our things]. A stopgap, don't you think? Everybody wants to do 'his thing' these days.

„If you want to represent everyday reality, you must allow everyday language into your poetry. These translators are really clever in that they recharge the language. In this case through the alliteration that pulls together dag [day], doen [do] en dingen [things].”

This is not an ode to the day, this is an ode to activism. It’s time for action!

“By using the word ‘business’ in the first line, the poem immediately sounds typically American. That works very well for an occasional poem like this one. The first verse conjures up the image of the day getting started, with people on their way to work and the superficial contacts that go with that. The tenor is not: action speaks louder than words, but rather: no action without words. Passing each other is accompanied by catching each other’s eyes or not, and when people do not speak to each other, at least they are about to. And so the sixth verse says that we encounter each other in words, ‘words to consider, reconsider’. Note the ‘we’. Being part of a community is presumed from the start. This is what is called ‘communitarianism’ in de United States.”

Back to the beginning. Immediately following the people talking or getting ready to talk comes noise. That does not sound like a climate conducive to communication.

„Yes, it is remarkable that a poem entitled ’Praise Song’ starts off with an entire verse dedicated to what we normally refer to as ‘breakdowns in communication’. Alexander simply calls it what it is: noise. And she repeats it emphatically: first there is noise, then noise and bramble, then thorn and din. This song of praise does not testify to naïve optimism. The negative side of life is acknowledged from the start. There is no communication without argument and conflict.

Like this, recited at the inauguration of a new president, this also seems to refer to the bitter election battle that preceded it. And, more generally, to the contemporary intercultural discord with ‘each one of our ancestors on our tongues’. In the days leading up to the inauguration journalists were eager to refer to Obama’s ancestors: the Pilgrim Fathers, because he was thought to be a direct descendant on his mother’s side. Others, on the other hand, held him to be a Muslim because he also has the name ‘Hussein’. And now there is a lot of noise again, among other things about what is truly American in the healthcare system.”

In reactions on the internet people call the poet Walt Whitman a metaphorical ancestor of Elizabeth Alexander.

“In Whitman’s poem ‘I hear America singing’ the narrator hears a boatman sing, a shoemaker, a girl that washes and sows, and a mother. They all sing about their everyday things: ’singing/ The day what belongs to the day’. This is the verse that resonates here.

For her part, Alexander sings the praises of what everybody does every day: stitch up a hem, darn a hole in a uniform, patch a tire. And everything is accompanied by the attempt to make music. This would really please the Dutch former minister of Culture Ronald Plasterk, because this music is close to the people. Somewhere someone is making music, ‘with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum’. I like that, it reminds me of my childhood in the village where we used wooden spoons to bang on upside down wash-tubs, for want of drums.”

The fifth verse ends with the order: begin! Is that also part of this pragmatic context?

“At university I once studied John Dewey, one of the founders of pragmatism. What I read there was a perfect fit with my own situation at the time: ‘That thesis of yours is never going to get done because you never begin. Do something, stop reading and worrying, pick up your pen and write the first sentence.’

This verse is about how we relate to time. A woman waits for the bus, a farmer studies the sky and the teacher wants us to begin. The entire poem underlines the significance of beginning. Each day is a new beginning, and the poem starts off with the evocation of the beginning of this new beginning: daybreak. The day, ‘this day’ returns continuously and at the end the poet literally says that ‘today’ is a turning point, and we can begin something new: ‘any thing can be made, any sentence begun’.”

If starting something new is so important, then why is the third verse all about repairing old things?

“I think that Alexander wanted to begin her naming of the different human activities with a tribute to work that is threatening to disappear in our current throw-away culture. We view the everyday products as consumables. We don’t repair or patch up anything anymore.”

Is that a bad thing?

“In order to capture the importance of this work, it is illuminating to look at the works of political philosopher Hannah Arendt. She was more influential in America than in Europe, and the people around Obama have definitely heard of her. In her book ‘The human condition’ Arendt made a distinction between labour, work, and action.

Labour is necessary for daily sustenance, for our survival as natural beings. Examples are the physically demanding occupations that are the subject of so much discussion. Work is the making of durable things: musical instruments, machines, houses, bridges. Part of work is also the culture, a writer’s body of work.

What we make brings a degree of stability to our existence on the globe. What we are seeing now is that these durable products are being treated as consumables. They return to the cycle of creation and decay at an accelerated pace. Undarned socks waste away like autumn leaves. Typewriters, like automobiles, end up in a graveyard. My first and only typewriter lasted forty years, but I now work on my third computer. Before long you might as well buy a new printer when your ink cartridge is empty.

And yet, looking at DIY enthusiasts it is obvious that you get more satisfaction from repairing a vacuum cleaner than from buying a new one. And when you discard things, you can give them a second life through the thrift shop. That is a signal for a philosophy that wants to be a philosophy of life.”

What kind of a signal?

“It is often said that philosophy stems from wonder and puzzlement. A cliché. It is much more common for reflection to spring from bafflement, or uneasiness, a word already used by Freud. The fact that we keep buying new things instead of repairing the old ones – this is something that, as they say, leaves us with a sense of unease. Philosophy should take that seriously.”

Do we also find this labour and work in Alexander’s poem?

“Absolutely. The first ten verses are about repairing things, making music, building bridges – that is work. But she also talks about labourers who build ‘glittering edifices’ brick by brick and clean them, and pick cotton and lettuce – that is labour.”

Again she pays a lot of attention to the negative sides of our existence.

“Everything we do has unpleasant side-effects for the people around us. We need roads, but roads are things that ‘mark the will of some one’. Anyone who has ever driven a car on the sixteen-lane highways in Los Angeles, recognizes the complex situation that is the result of the will of our fellow man in this verse, even if he has the best of American intentions: to go somewhere better. The Dutch poet Lucebert already noted that no-one has less freedom than the motorist. His options are the outcome of what others have already chosen before him: ‘What are you doing toddling now capable good-for-nothing. / On this path chalked out by others.’ [‘Wat tippel jij dan nu kundige nietsnut./ Over dat door anderen uitgestippelde pad.’] We encounter this lack of freedom every day.

Picking cotton and lettuce, that was the black man’s labour, a stain on the past. In the online discussion about this poem, which is also filled with venom, Alexander is resented for mentioning it. It is ‘leftish’ and allegedly spreads discord. The fact is that, through work or labour, many have died for this day. This should be ‘plainly said.’

This saying is itself a form of ‘action’ – Hanna Arendt’s third category. In verse 11 the word ‘Praise’ appears for the first time. Paradoxically, in the case of action the negative aspect is mentioned first – praise song for struggle. Again, there is no naïve optimism here. Rather, the positive tone is an element in the political trade. You can’t practice politics without opening up new perspectives, without ‘the audacity of hope.’”

And what is action?

“Action, according to Arendt, enables a new beginning in the cycle of nature and the course of history. Action is always accompanied by language. And language here is not just characterizing the world, but especially communicating yourself and in the process addressing others. Self-disclosure. If you act, if you want to contribute to society, you must show who you are.

Arendt points out that the outcome of an initiative is always uncertain. That is the other side of the new beginning. Politics is always an adventure. Coping with this uncertainty requires a certain mentality. That is why in the final paragraphs of her chapter on action she describes the power of forgiveness and the power of promise. Beautiful passages one does not expect to find in a philosophical reflection on politics. In this context self-disclosure means that the politician needs to exude two things: trustworthiness and a conciliatory attitude.

Arendt’s book impresses mainly because of her thorough knowledge of the classics. Her thinking is truly historical. She contends that one ancient conception of politics, ‘the contemplative model’, must be conquered. In Greek antiquity the paragon of true knowledge was found in geometry. The truth of lines and angles can be ‘inspected’. This does not require language, and therefore no consultation with others. This insight dominated classical philosophy all the way up to Spinoza. Compared to this clarity, anything the senses or the imagination have to offer us is inferior. Naturally the temptation to transfer this model to politics is considerable.”

And that’s where it goes wrong?

“That is when the ideal politician turns into the tyrant. Characteristic of the autocrat is not that he rules alone – every regent does that to some degree – but that he alone knows. The enlightened ruler, on the other hand, seeks advice from others. In modern democracy this consultation has been institutionalized.

This turn towards democracy is connected with a different concept of time. Time and history are no longer interfering factors in the recognition of eternal truths, but are themselves a source of understanding. I referred to Arendt as a political philosopher, but one could also call her a philosopher of time, of the day, and of what it means for political thinking.”

And what did time mean for the politics of Bush?

“There are so-called ‘9/11 philosophers’ in the US who hold the view that the invasions of Iraq by Bush was an act of genius that defines how history must be explained from now on. The collapse of the Soviet Union is said to demonstrate that the concept of the democratic, capitalist state is the be all and end all of political truth. This is a variation on the model of eternal truth applied to history. It is curious that these totalitarian ideas from the Old World caught on in the United States of all places. I therefore think that Obama is much more American than Bush.”

The neoconservatives didn’t want to abolish the elections, did they?

“Elections are a referendum, but a referendum only makes sense if the public is also informed. Otherwise an election is no more than a sales technique. With the inauguration a day has dawned on which speaking – or getting ready to speak – is re-established.”

And then the ‘praise song for the day’ turns up.

“Again the practical slant of this verse is striking. What are we praising? The hand-lettered sign, everything we figure out at the kitchen table. This includes political issues, who we should vote for, but also discussions about norms and values, about rules we cannot ‘inspect’. Note that there is not even the least inclination towards post-modernism, relativism or multiculturalism – the classic objections to pragmatic thinking.

The twelfth verse summarizes the rules of life: ‘Some live’. The rules that follow are printed in italics for a reason, it is the essence of the three world religions. For Christianity there is: love thy neighbour as thyself. For Judaism: first do no harm. For Islam: take no more than you need.”

Isn’t ‘What if the mightiest word is love’ a naive sentence?

“For love you should think of the New Testament concept of agapè, which is best translated as care. In our language love presumes a sympathetic disposition. Care is a much more pragmatic concept. You may not love your enemy, but you can drive to the hospital after an accident. This is the prudent conclusion Alexander draws from the three rules of life. It is civil religion. In verse 13 she says that this ‘love’ reaches beyond the natural boundaries of family and nation.

It is, moreover, love ‘with no reason to pre-empt grievance’. Bindervoet and Henkes translate this as ‘liefde die geen preventie van grieven nodig heeft’ [love that requires no prevention of grievances]. I doubt whether ‘grieven’ is the correct term here. In my opinion ‘pre-empt grievance’ refers to the juridization of society, which has reached extreme proportions in the United States. I would translate ‘grievance’ with ‘klachten’ [complaint], a legal term. Alexander speaks about a love whose goal is not to prevent complaints, a love not dictated by calculation.

He who lets this love be the mightiest word, can create something new. That is the hope that ‘a sharp sparkle’ brings about on this winter’s day.

The poem ends with yet another piece of practical advice. This sparkling light is not to be considered in solitude. If you want to see it, then get to work. Walk forward. Do it now. Every hour, every now, holds new opportunities. Indeed, praise the day!”

This article originally appeared in Trouw on the 16th of january, 2010

The following is a transcript of the inaugural poem, ‘Praise Song for the Day’, written and recited by Elizabeth Alexander, as provided by Graywolf Press.

Praise song for the day

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

Lofzang voor de dag

Elke dag doen we onze dingen,

lopen langs elkaar heen, vangen elkaars

blik of niet, praten of maken aanstalten te gaan praten.

Overal om ons heen is lawaai. Overal om ons heen

lawaai en doornstruiken, distels en herrie, met al

onze voorouders op onze tong.

Iemand naait een zoom, stopt

een gat in een uniform, plakt een band,

repareert de dingen die gerepareerd moeten worden.

Ergens probeert iemand muziek te maken

met een paar houten lepels op een olievat,

met cello, gettoblaster, mondharmonica, stem.

Een vrouw en haar zoon wachten op de bus.

Een boer bestudeert de veranderende lucht.

Een leraar zegt: Pak je potlood. Begin.

We komen elkaar tegen in woorden, woorden

stekelig of strelend, zacht of op hoge toon,

woorden om te overwegen, te heroverwegen.

We steken zandpaadjes en snelwegen over die de wil

van iemand markeren en dan van anderen die zeiden:

Ik moet de overkant zien.

Ik weet dat het verderop beter is.

We moeten een plek vinden waar we veilig zijn.

We lopen datgene in wat we nog niet kunnen zien.

Zeg het ronduit: dat er velen gestorven zijn voor deze dag.

Zing de namen van de doden die ons hier hebben gebracht,

die de spoorwegen aanlegden, de bruggen bouwden,

het katoen en de sla plukten, steen voor steen

de blinkende gebouwen oprichtten

om die vervolgens schoon te houden en erin te werken.

Lofzang voor strijd; lofzang voor de dag.

Lofzang voor elk met de hand beschreven bord;

het passen en meten aan de keukentafel.

Sommigen hebben als motto: Heb je naaste lief als jezelf.

Anderen: Doe voor alles niemand kwaad of Neem niet meer

dan je nodig hebt. Stel dat het machtigste woord echt liefde is?

Liefde voorbij huwelijk, kinderen, vaderland,

liefde die een steeds groter meer van licht verspreidt,

liefde die geen preventie van grieven nodig heeft.

In de scherpe sprankeling van vandaag, deze winterlucht,

kan alles worden gemaakt, elke zin worden begonnen.

Op de rand, op de drempel, op het keerpunt,

lofzang voor het naar voren lopen in dat licht.

Elizabeth Alexander

Vertaling: Robbert-Jan Henkes en Erik Bindervoet

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