The Day the Audience Came to Poetry: A Guest Post From Fiona McCrae
It was a really big secret that only three of us at Graywolf knew: the title of the inaugural poem, and its contents. We couldn’t tell other staff members or even our loved ones. It was an extraordinary feeling. I’m used to thinking of our poetry working its way through the body of society like homeopathic medicine: infinitesimal quantities having a powerful effect on the whole organism, one cell at a time. But in this case, if the text of the poem was released early, we realized it would make international news and ruin an enormously public and momentous occasion.
Poetry, ignored daily by millions, was invited to participate in the inauguration of Barack Obama. By virtue of Graywolf’s long publishing relationship with the inaugural poet, Elizabeth Alexander, history-in-the-making had walked right up to our door and was knocking, loudly. We realized that, with over two million on the Mall, and untold millions watching on TV and the internet all over the planet, this would be the largest audience for a single poem, ever.
Talking to Elizabeth in the days leading up the inauguration was fascinating. Sure, she was giddy, excited, and honored, but it struck me that she never questioned whether poetry belonged at that occasion. She did not believe it was about her, but about the invitation to bring a different type of language, a heightened language, to the political arena. She saw herself as serving poetry, the demands of that moment, and a president for whom she has so many hopes.
Praise Song for the Day. Waking up that morning, and knowing that millions of people were going to hear that perfect title was thrilling. At Graywolf, as the inauguration got underway, we all sat around watching the live coverage on a central computer, and a local TV station turned up to watch us watching. My jitters for Elizabeth seem trivial in retrospect: What if she stumbles? Chokes? Drops the words? Faints? Loses her voice? But she did none of the above. She let the words ring out, crystal clear. I loved the gathering rhythm as she read out, “On the brim, on the brink, on the cusp.” And how did she know it would be a cold day? The words seemed so right, so true, and intuitively echoed many of the themes of Obama’s speech.
It was a civic moment in the broadest sense, and a poem to remind us who we are, and where we came from. I wonder if I expected the proceedings to stop, there, at the poem. But history rolled on. Obama showed George to the door, or at least to the helicopter. There was Cheney wheeling out of sight. Then, less than thirty minutes after the poem had been read, Elizabeth was calling. Our very secret poem, the one that we could not even whisper to our spouses, was now the most public poem in the world. Wrongly transcribed versions were flying around the internet. Our job changed within minutes – from keeping the poem under wraps, to getting the correct version out there as quickly as possible. This second job proved to be the harder.