Stephen Colbert hears the Mermaids

What’s the difference between a metaphor and lying?
With a president who reads Derek Walcott and quotes June Jordan it’s good to have comedians at home with T.S.Eliot. This week inaugural poet Elizabeth Alexander explained metaphor to Stephen on The Colbert Report.

Meanwhile at PDS English teachers had a quick email conversation that went something like this:

Teacher#1

I’m attaching a copy of Elizabeth Alexander’s “Praise Song for the Day,” which she read at yesterday’s inauguration…. I find the poem to be extremely accomplished in terms of its subtlety and precision, with evocative and accessible imagery. This all becomes clearer on the page, with the poet’s line breaks and enjambments restored. She’s clearly drawing on Whitman as an influence, and it could possibly be connected to the one school – one poem project. I’m going to try to work it into my classes this week and thought I’d share it with you.

Teacher #2

It reminded me of Berthold Brecht’s Questions from a worker who reads.

Teacher #3

(Looks like we’re composing a great English assignment.) I was reminded of this poem by Marge Piercy:

To Be of Use

The people I love the best

jump into work head first

without dallying in the shallows

and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.

They seem to become natives of that element,

the black sleek heads of seals

bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,

who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,

who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,

who do what has to be done, again and again.

(there’s more)

It was the lines:

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

that brought Brecht to mind.

Who built Thebes of the seven gates?
In the books you will find the name of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?
And Babylon, many times demolished.
Who raised it up so many times? In what houses
Of gold-glittering Lima did the builders live?
Where, the evening that the Wall of China was finished
Did the masons go?

from Questions from a Worker who Reads

There’s also the echo of W.H.Auden.  In  Breughel’s painting  Icarus falling into the Sea– his wings melted for flying too close to the sun –   Icarus  falls to his death while around him life goes on as usual.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns awayicarus015
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

from Musee des Beaux Arts.

In Praise Song the particularity of other  and ordinary lives are the prelude, the purpose and the essential background of all the public progress, pomp and circumstance.

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.

This is the business of daily life and how we walk

…past each other…

All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.

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