We encounter each other in words,” Elizabeth Alexander read from her poem “Praise Song for the Day” at Tuesday’s inauguration ceremony for president Barack Obama, “words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed; words to consider, reconsider.” These were fitting lines, as the new president had just set down an armada of words to transport myself and over a million others huddled on the National Mall away from our frozen limbs and into the power and potential of the historic moment. On a morning marked with the waving of tiny American flags and tears running down cold cheeks, friends and family and strangers hugged each other for warmth and in celebration—all of us united under a banner of words.
But in the week leading up to the inauguration, all around me it seemed that the situation was just the opposite: the lack of words, or the insufficiency of those that came to mind to describe living through this type of experience, one that pushes onward regardless of one’s ability to absorb all the nuances of its significance. The chatter on the Metro between strangers, compelled by the occasion to talk to one another, tended towards awestruck speechlessness: “It’s amazing. It’s just amazing.” Instead, some were moved to tell their own stories—some as compelling as fiction—as a way of conveying the human importance of this time in history: “I drove through the night from Charlotte, North Carolina, and a stranger invited me into her home so I wouldn’t freeze to death in the streets.”
Poet and prose writer Chris Abani, during a reading at the Folger Shakespeare Library last Friday, discussed the reliance that people have on storytelling, how narrative is a medium to make words effective, to help us process major events. “Saying something like, ‘He shot that man’ says little,” Abani said. What we want to know is the story behind it: the why, the how, experience building meaning, and meaning serving to unite, to educate, and to influence decisions.
Maybe this is why local writers have been buzzing with so much excitement; they are the storytellers, the wordsmiths, and now they can count the leader of their country as one of their own—a president who has inspired many individuals simply by telling his story, in his books and in his speeches. Poet and Cave Canem fellow Bettina Judd believes that at the root of all this fervor is hope, and that the inauguration came to D.C. at a “time when poetry and the other arts are flourishing, and political excitement and hope are coming together.” This week, the city known for its divisive identity blushed with the sudden influx of people, many writers and artists among them, from all over the country—and the world—infusing it with a jubilation it hasn’t known since perhaps Martin Luther King Jr.’s delivery of his iconic speech at the Lincoln Memorial forty-six years ago. The writers are, and have been, at the forefront of shaping and proclaiming the individual narratives that make up that national story referred to by the new president. But even in the midst of the great celebration that is D.C. right now, writers always reside on the outside, while still being very much a part of the party; from that vantage point, they take their celebration with a dose of wariness.
On King’s birthday, at the Busboys and Poets Café—known simply as Busboys to the locals—Alice Walker gave a highly anticipated reading to a packed crowd sitting on couches, friends’ laps, the floor, and any other nook that didn’t pose a fire hazard. “It’s like the whole country got laid,” said Andy Shallal, owner and founder of Busboys, before introducing Walker, who endorsed Obama in 2007, saying, “We need someone now who is literary.”
“Peace is not to be entrusted solely to men,” Walker read, from an essay she’d written about the recent death of her sister, relating that death to the killing of five young sisters during an air strike in Gaza. The work referred to the unique ability of “real conversation, real telling, and real listening” to lead to peace. While she described President Obama as “a new burst of energy,” she also told the crowd, “People think we’ve elected a magician.” She stressed individual responsibility, and the need for the American people to “turn the wheel” together, messages the president himself has emphasized repeatedly.
As I left Busboys that night before the inauguration, walking down the U Street Corridor, the site of riots after the assassination of King, now teeming with amenable crowds craving half-smokes from Ben’s Chili Bowl, I had a difficult time processing the mood of the moment. Joy, wonder, uncertainty, and noise all hung in the air as palpable as the frigid cold—people talking, shouting, selling, buying, arranging, moving. Crowds were lined up at bar after bar to drink variant versions of “The Obama” or whatever “Baracktail” was being sold for ten bucks. Many in this crowd intended to drink until the city’s four AM alcohol restriction, or to retreat to their buses or a twenty-four-hour cafe until that hour, when officials would open the National Mall to the public.
In a recent conversation, poet E. Ethelbert Miller remarked that people in D.C. skipped over Christmas and New Year’s Eve, reserving all their partying energy for the inauguration. While the enthusiasm was great, he went on to say that the tone Obama was trying to establish was one of enthusiastic service as well. Miller pointed out that by spending the day before the inauguration serving the D.C. community, Obama was “emphasizing and restoring [King’s birthday] as a day of service, setting a tone for the administration and inspiring people here.” In this way, the city’s own story continues to grow in the direction of what Judd described as “a moment where we are seriously confronted with the legacy of the problem of race in this city and the memory of it as well.”
So, how does one begin to process much less express the meaning of all that is happening during a historical inauguration in a place as complex as Washington, D.C., where ideologies like the ones that drive many of Obama’s supporters are looked at as suspiciously as unclaimed packages left at federal buildings? Alexander, the fourth poet to read at a presidential inauguration, came close to answering that question on Tuesday when she read, “In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.” This is a recursive hope; something this city and any writer seated before a blank page or in the midst of revision knows well.
On Tuesday, as Alexander stood to read after President Obama delivered his speech to a hushed crowd, many spectators began to make their strategic exits, hoping to beat the Metro mob. Miller had expressed worry that the public would expect a performance in the style of Maya Angelou, or a slam poet. People would want a poem read with pizzazz to match the celebratory atmosphere of the crowd, while perhaps what truly would matter was a poem that would remain, and to which the people could return.
After the reading, one person in the crowd said that the president had such a way with words, and it was too bad that Alexander had to go on after that speech. Someone else commented, “Maybe the poem is better on paper.” Even in the uncertainty of how to evaluate the inaugural poem, the poem was at work, bringing many Americans back to the difficult task of raising questions, and of self-examination, both natural effects of poetry as it draws listeners to quietly consider the nuances of language and how language expresses and urges one not only to action but to reflect on the meaning behind those actions. For past administrations, some poets have refused invitations to participate in White House readings, making the mere presence of poetry in the event welcoming the new administration poignant in itself, speaking to the new president’s urges for us to move forward and consider what our ideals mean as we encounter the ever-challenging vicissitudes of daily life.
As Alexander read from her poem, “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 is noise,” that’s precisely what folks were doing.