Inaugural Poem A Dud With Readers

(AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)
Books of poetry rarely fly off shelves. Then again, not many poets get to debut a piece in front of millions of people.

Unfortunately, Elizabeth Alexander, President Obama's choice for inaugural poet, has not been able to translate her widely televised reading into a trip to the best seller list.

Alexander, a professor of African-American studies and English at Yale University, is a prominent writer and poet hailed for her pared down style. At the ceremony, she read a poem entitled "Praise Song for the Day" that was both a hymn to the power of language and a reflection on the historical importance of Mr. Obama's election as the country's first African-American president.

Since that time, Alexander's work has struggled to find an audience in print, selling only 6,000 copies, according to the Associated Press. The poem's publisher, Graywolf Press, announced a first printing of 100,000 copies.

In contrast, Maya Angelou became something of a celebrity after she read a poem at Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1993. Her work, "On the Pulse of the Morning," sold a million copies.

Alexander's inaugural offering was considered a disappointment by many critics. The Los Angeles Times' David L. Ulin called it "less than praiseworthy."

Alexander was only the fourth inaugural poet. The other members of the exclusive group are Robert Frost, who read a poem at John F. Kennedy's inauguration, along with Angelou and Miller Williams, who both read works at Bill Clinton's inaugural ceremonies.

Full Text of the poem:

Praise Song for the Day

by Elizabeth Alexander

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.