Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, April 8, 2007

At Easter time 68 years ago -- that is, within living memory -- the Daughters of the American Revolution denied permission for the black contralto Marian Anderson to sing before an integrated Washington audience in DAR Constitution Hall. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the organization, and in a now-legendary aftermath, Anderson instead sang an open-air recital, organized by the Department of the Interior, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. She began by singing "America" before the very large, integrated audience.

This famous event is the basis for a poem by Kevin Young, serving poetry's traditional role of providing a compact, vocal record of what is worth remembering:


Easter, 1939

The Revolution's Step-Daughters

will not let

Marian Anderson clear

her brown throat

onstage, among the blinding lights

of Constitution Hall --

it will take a First Lady to invite

Anderson to thrill

a throng at Lincoln's stone feet.

(In the wings, Anderson trills

the me-me-me-me-me

of practice drills.)

Like sky her throat is clear.


folks stop to hear her

voice's bright thunder --

Git all board, little chillen

Dere's' room for many -- mo'

bringing springtime to the streets

Benjamin Banneker helped sow:

The podium a bouquet

of microphones --

This bloom that begins

all along the spine.

The engineer and thinker Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806) was the child of slaves who had bought their freedom and helped survey the land for Washington. His gifts and knowledge are part of the poem's interest in technical matters. That people stopped to hear Anderson's performance "everywhere" is not mere hyperbole: The performance was broadcast to a large, attentive radio audience. Young's poem is partly about broadcast media: Radio, with its "bouquet of microphones," enabled this historic event that still blooms along some central avenue of our national imagination. ยท

(Kevin Young's poem "Springtime Comes to the Capitol" is from his book "For the Confederate Dead." Borzoi. Copyright 2007 by Kevin Young.)

Robert Pinsky's most recent book of poetry is "Jersey Rain."

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