First Corinthians was referenced in at least two instances today. First, President Obama referenced it directly when he said, “We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.” Then, in Elizabeth Alexander’s poem, “Praise song for the day,” she said, “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 preempt grievance.“
These words reference and were inspired by I Corinthians 13. I am by no means a bible scholar, but I happened to recognize these references to a particular passage that I am using as a theme for Winslow. I’m also not particularly religious, and I firmly believe in secular government, but if you’re going to reference scripture, and use words that can touch believers of all faiths (and even non-believers whom Obama made a point of including) you can’t find a better passage to reference than this:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face-to-face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
I think it’s entirely appropriate that a poet speak at a presidential inauguration. I just saw filmmaker Ken Burns on television describing America as a country based on nothing more, nothing less, than ideas. I believe that is true. We are a nation of immigrants, all from different cultures and different religions. The only thing that binds us together are the ideas first expressed by Thomas Jefferson what he wrote of “truths we hold self-evident.” The power of these truths is that they have been in the past, and should be now and in the future, stronger than anything that divides us.
Words, that express ideas, that attempt to articulate truth, matter. They matter deeply.
One can be skeptical about art that is produced to support a state event. How can it be any good? Isn’t it just fancy propaganda? To ask that question ignores the difference between art and politics. Art seeks to express deep universal truths. It may or may not align with a political agenda. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t.
I imagine that it’s very difficult to create a poem that both serves its inspirational purpose, but also reaches beyond political agendas to to touch some universal truth that resonates with us. As much as I love it, Ginsberg’s “Howl” (“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…”) isn’t going to cut it at an inauguration. The poem must be patriotic, which doesn’t mean it has to be propagandistic. The poem must be positive, but not falsely so. It must be emotionally moving, but not sentimental. But its most important purpose at such an occasion is to give voice to our common identity, those ideas that bind us together, and the journey that we have been on in perfecting how reality reflects those ideas.
As a writer, and especially as a poet of modest talent, I’m in awe of how well Elizabeth Alexander spoke for us. Every word, every image, contains an epic story:
Praise song for the day.
Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each others’ 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 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.”
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 thy self.”
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 preempt grievance.
In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp — praise song for walking forward in that light.
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