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Poet Elizabeth Alexander to read at inaugural

In 1961, president-elect John F. Kennedy invited a then nearly 87 year old Robert Frost to recite a poem at his inaugural ceremony.  Frost wrote a poem called "Dedication" especially for the occasion, but on a bitterly cold afternoon in Washington, D.C., was unable to read his prepared text in the bright sunlight.  Instead he recited "The Gift Outright," a classic poem he had written in 1942 ("The land was ours before we were the land's..."), from memory.  From such faltering beginnings--at least for Democratic administrations--a great American tradition was born.

James Dickey
extended the tradition by reading "The Strength of Fields" at Jimmy Carter's inaugural in 1977, and Maya Angelou's recitation of "On the Pulse of Morning" at the first Clinton inaugural in 1993 opened up a new chapter in America's acknowledgement of its cultural diversity.  Miller Williams, the distinguished University of Arkansas based poet, who is perhaps best known as the father of singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams, read his poem "Of History and Hope" at the second Clinton inaugural in 1997.

No sooner had president-elect Barack Obama finished delivering his victory speech before a crowd over 100,000 in Chicago's Grant Park on election night than speculation began in the literary world on whether a poet would be invited to read at his inauguration, and if so, who would get the call.

We now know the answer to those questions.  On Thursday, Obama's presidential inaugural committee invited Yale University based poet and scholar Elizabeth Alexander, the Quantrell Award winning author of four collections of poems, to compose and recite a poem appropriate to the occasion.

Ms. Alexander, who was born in 1962 in New York City, raised in Washington, D.C., and educated at Yale, Boston University, and the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of  The Venus Hottentot (1990),  Body of Life (1996), Antebellum Dream Book (2001), and American Sublime (Graywolf Press), one of three finalists for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in poetry.  She is also author of The Black Interior (2004), a collection of essays that was also published by Graywolf.

If much has been written about the influence of historian Doris Goodwin Kearn's book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2005) on Obama's "post-ideological" thinking with respect to his cabinet selections, then it appears as if propinquity plays a larger role in his thought process when it comes to picking poets.  Alexander is said to be a former neighbor and friend of both Barack and Michelle Obama--a friendship forged while she and Mr. Obama were faculty members and scholars at the University of Chicago nearly a decade ago.  Her brother worked on the Obama campaign and is a member of the president-elect's transition team.

Alexander has written extensively on issues of race and gender, particularly in her essay "Meditations on Mecca: Gwendolyn Brooks and the Responsibilities of a Black Poet," but perhaps the most straightforward encapsulation of her approach to poetics can be found in this selection from American Sublime which has been circulated widely: 

    Ars Poetica #100: I Believe

    Poetry, I tell my students,
    is idiosyncratic. Poetry

    is where we are ourselves,
    (though Sterling Brown said

    “Every ‘I’ is a dramatic ‘I’”)
     digging in the clam flats

    for the shell that snaps,
    emptying the proverbial pocketbook.

    Poetry is what you find
    in the dirt in the corner,

    overhear on the bus, God
    in the details, the only way

    to get from here to there.
    Poetry (and now my voice is rising)

    is not all love, love, love,
    and I’m sorry the dog died.

    Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)
    is the human voice,

    and are we not of interest to each other

If you'd like to find out more about Alexander, or read selections from her work, visit her web site: Elizabeth Alexander | Home Page .  To listen to her in conversation with National Public Radio's Melissa Block on Thursday's "All Things Considered," visit  Poet Calls Writing Inaugural Poem A 'Challenge' : NPR

--R.D. Pohl



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