Whitman’s Echoes in the Inaugural Poem “Praise Song for the Day” by Elizabeth Alexander

In 1860, the original version of “I Hear America Singing” by Walt Whitman appeared in the first edition of Leaves of Grass. In this poem, Whitman rhythmically celebrated common citizens as they went about their daily lives as individuals and as part of the American whole. Flash forward to January 2009 when President Barack Obama gave his first inaugural address to the nation—echoing Whitman’s poetic style. For that inaugural ceremony, poet Elizabeth Alexander, was asked to write and deliver an original poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” that also echoes Whitman. Despite the different time periods and differences in issues facing our country, Whitman’s poetic style continues to resonate with modern America. This lesson explores those echoes within a 21st-century inaugural speech and poem as they anticipate the future of a renewed American community.

This lesson plan provides a sequence of activities that you can use with your students before, during, and after reading “Praise Song for the Day.” Use the whole sequence, or any of the activities, to help your diverse learners enter, experience, and explore the meaning of the poem. Feel free to adjust each activity to meet the needs of your particular students. This lesson can be adapted for secondary students in grades 6–12.

Link to a video of the poet, Elizabeth Alexander, reading “Praise Song for the Day” composed for the 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama.

This lesson is an adaptation of an original lesson by the Academy of American Poet’s Educator in Residence, Madeleine Fuchs Holzer.

Guiding Questions

No Guiding Questions

Learning Objectives

Students will identify repetition as a way of creating rhythm in a poem.

Students will identify poetic elements in a speech.

Students will compare the experience of reading a poem on a page to hearing and seeing a poet read a poem on video.

Students will synthesize echoes from Whitman’s poetry that appear in 21st-century inaugural poetry and speech.

Students will explore inaugural poetry as lens through which America can look forward to renewal.