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“Yes We Can,” an inaugural poem by Marvin Bell

Marvin Bell has written a fine poem on an impossible subject. In its sweep, yet anchored in strong, precise images that anchor the ideas that America was founded its inclusion of family, of people who work with both hands and heads...for me, it's a true poem---perhaps even a great poem---of the beat of what is most uplifting about us as Americans and the way of life we have crafted over the relatively short time since our birth as a nation.

You can also see Marvin Bell's "Yes We Can" in the Iowa City Press-Citizen newspaper on page 9A, available online by clicking this link (go to the full article for the live link).

Marvin Bell, who served two terms as the State of Iowa's first Poet Laureate, and who caucused for Obama in Iowa, wrote this poem at the request of an Obama supporter. The most recent of Mr. Bell's nineteen collections of poetry is Mars Being Red, published in 2007 by Copper Canyon Press.

You may also enjoy seeing a New York Times video op-ed on the FIRST WORDS of teenagers speaking directly to our new president expressed in poetry by clicking here.

Yes, We Can
On the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States of America, Jan. 20, 2009.

by Marvin Bell

We are a people who began from a Yes,

A nation born of the yes in the farmland,

The yes engraved in the dirt and stone,

In the mines, in the sea, in the machines

That made girders that made cities,

In the big ideas that make us human,

In the yes that comes to every street

Where there endures a love of forebears

And a net for children when they fall,

Where there was a yes to “Let’s try,”

And a yes, we can do better, and a yes

That grew to enfold our largest America.

Yes to the high-rise ironworker, yes

To the diggers of tunnels and the pilots,

Yes to those still on line, to the makers,

The builders, the haulers, the guardians,

To the teachers who had to make do.

It is the yes that sings, and lights up the dark.

It is the yes in the myriad colors of unity,

And in what it means to be a grownup.

In the gasoline rainbows by the curb

As the parent takes his child to school

And the parent takes her lunch bucket to work,

And the father carries his papers

And the schoolchild her homework,

The carpenter her measure, the fisherman his tackle,

And who dares say, no we can’t, at sunup?

Have you heard the cry of yes in the newborn

At his mother’s breast, and heard the yes

Whispering in the fields at harvest time?

There is a yes that will not be shushed

In the head of the scientist weary at her desk

And in the doctor as he studies the x-rays

After hours. We are the yes from every continent,

The yes born of flesh and blood that came

By steerage and slave ship, the manyness

Of all who were this nation’s first people

Or came after, by many paths, whatever it took.

We have been an aggregate of wishes

And hopes, of the future, of blessings, of aches

And pleasure, of the sacred liberties

For which families have labored and grieved.

We still want to say yes, yes to equality,

Yes to the best in us, yes and yes to the idea

That we will be judged by what we do for others

For free, and so we have said yes, and yes again,

One nation, one people, and yes, we can.

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10 Responses »

  1. Indeed I do still want to say yes. Let us all say yes to the best in us.

  2. What a grand and positive affirmation of everything that makes America great.

    I love these images, which conjure the adventurous souls who left their safe(r) homes to come to these shores:

    "We are the yes from every continent,
    The yes born of flesh and blood"

    I love the baby's "Yes" at the breast, which illustrates the hunger and positive attitude that have made this country great.

    I love it that Bell's poem remembers the Native Americans, many of whom lost their lives to disease and warfare.

    I love it that Bell's poem acknowledges both our female and male forbears and compatriots.

    A perfect poem for a great president, and a great nation, as we face the daunting tasks ahead.

    Yes, indeed, we can!

  3. Yes...oh yes...Remember Molly Bloom's famous, orgasmic soliloquy towards the end of James Joyce's "Ulysses"? (Probably one of the reasons the book was banned in America I'm thinking)? Marvin's growing rhythm of "yeses" in this poem reminds me of that...where there is a growing build...a sort of Halleluyah chorus of "yeses" backing up a soloist. Oh, yes...I do love this poem, and the country which it celebrates.


  4. Rebecca...And the Doctor is IN! It's so wonderful to hear such a specific comment on some of your favorite lines in this fine, affirmative, American poem by Marvin Bell. Thanks, Rebecca. I couldn't agree more...and, yes...We DID!


  5. How beautiful! You wonderfully expressed the many thoughts, feelings, and emotions that have struggled to find words equal to the enormity of this historic moment!

  6. I like Bell's poem. It is all-inclusive, has a Whitmanesque sweep, and is accessible, something that would speak to all Americans, not just to the poetic elite. It might be a tad shot on evocative imagery, but I understand he is going for inclusion rather than detail. Bell's poem is prolific and far reaching and celebrates the USA and its history and its working folk.

    Dr. Charlotte Hussey, McGill

  7. This poem soars with the energy of the new nation we were and are becoming. Bell carries us back to our origins and forward with our hopes. Yes, we can...we each and everyone can "do for others, for free." Thank you, Mr. Bell, for this "ring" of freedom, of hope and of joy!

  8. I wish that this poem was read at the inauguration. It's majestic in its inspiration, so detailed in everything that we have to be grateful for. It caused me to think about all the people to whom I can be grateful. This poem is good at the beginning, good in the middle and good at the end. Good to read at the beginning of one's life, pointing to the simple pleasures, like rainbows of gasoline. It's good in the middle, celebrating the work, the birthing of children, caring for them as they go to school. And good at the end of life, when one reflects on everything that has passed, not just this one life, but so many lives that have come before. This poem makes me feel connected to all the people in this country, proud to feel patriotic again, to call myself "American." It celebrates our rise out of the fear that's permeated our country for eight very long years. I find myself feeling like a new patriot, someone who "will do for others for free" just for the love of it and the meaning of it.
    Thanks so much for posting this amazing collection of words. I'm grateful to Marvin Bell for his gift.

  9. This is a great poem, well-written and full of images and sounds. At one point I could almost picture myself on a 'ship of sorrow' headed to a port of uncertainty!

    A few lines before the end of the poem, Marvin acknowledges the fact that the struggle for equality is still ongoing. It is a struggle we must all engage in to ensure we can say loudly and proudly one day; Yes we Have!!


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