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Barack Obama has chosen Elizabeth Alexander, a 46-year-old Yale professor, to write a poem for his inauguation ceremony on January 20.
Poems written for special occasions have been a mixed blessing. Each British Poet Laureate writes scores of these “occasional poems” over the period of his laureateship, and much has been written about their success or awfulness.
Robert Frost was the first poet asked to read at an American inauguration — John Kennedy’s. Advanced in age, with high winds whipping the page and strong sun blinding him, Frost gave up trying to read his brand new composition and declaimed his well-known “The Gift Outright” from memory.
It seems to be Democrats who want poetry at these occasions. There have been only two inaugural readings since, and they were at both of Bill Clinton’s swearing-ins: Maya Angelou’s in 1993 and Miller Williams’s in 1997. (James Dickey read a poem at one of Jimmy Carter’s gala events, but not at the inaugual ceremony.)
Dwight Garner, in an article in the NY Times, feels the poetry itself has been “a motley bunch.” He quotes a few stiff lines from Frost’s undelivered “Dedication,” and dismisses Angelou’s “On the Pulse of Morning” as “touchy-feely, multi-culti and crammed with shout-outs.”
He feels Miller Williams might have done a passable job with his “Of History and Hope,” which he calls “dignified, with a weather-beaten resonance.”
(Garner futher notes that music fans might be interested in knowing that Mr Williams is the father of singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams.)
Elizabeth Alexander was born in Harlem and raised in Washington DC. She has recently been on fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard.
Her first book of poems was “The Venus Hottentot,” published in 1990. Other books are “Body of Life” (1996), “Antebellum Dream Book” (2001) and “American Sublime” 2005), one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize.
She has also published two books of essays, “The Black Interior” (2003) and “Power and Possibility” (2007).
Witnesses to Barack Obama’s inauguration will hear the work of a woman whose verse makes a sharply different kind of music from that of previous inaugural poets. Principal obsessions in her four books of verse have been race and history, love and family, and these play out in a buzz of electrical angularity.
Here is the whole of “Emancipation:”
Corncob constellation, / oyster shell, drawstring pouch, / dry bones. // Grls grls in the rafters. / Hoodoo in the sleeping nook. / Mojo in Linda Brent’s / crawlspace. // Sixteenth century corncob cosmogram / set on the dirt floor, beneath the slant roof, // left intact the afternoon / that someone came and told / those slaves // “We’re free.”
She tells Dwight Garner that she was surprised and flattered to be asked to compose this poem, particularly by Barack Obama.
“His own use of language, and his respect for it, is so evident. He is aware of the kind of power language has, and aware of the kind of care with which we ought to try to speak to each other as we move forward.”
She is casting an eye back as she prepares to write this poem.
“I have read the previous inaugural poems, as well as many others. The ones that appeal to me have a sense of focus and a kind of gravitas, an ability to appeal to larger issues without getting corny.”
And she doesn’t want the poem to talk down; she wants to speak clearly but artfully, she says.
Among the poets she has been reading are Virgil, Auden, Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney and Gwendolyn Brooks.
When asked if she is prepared for a Robert Frost moment with the manuscript catching fire or blowing away, she says “I am going to have many copies of the poem tucked away. I really am. In a boot. I’m serious. I’m a mom.”
Alexander’s father, Clifford, was a presidential civil rights advisor to Lyndon B Johnson and secretary of the Army during the Carter administration, so she is no stranger to politics.
Her mother, Adele, teaches African-American women’s history at George Washington University.
Elizabeth Alexander became friendly with Barack and Michelle Obama when both she and Mr Obama were teaching at the University of Chicago in the 1990s.
Her younger brother, Mark, was a senior advisor to Mr Obama’s presidential campaign and is working on the Obama transition team.
The poet feels that if there is anything readers and critics get wrong about her poetry and that of other African-American contemporaries, it is that they “focus on content but forget about form and craft.”
“And to a certain extent, that’s OK. I’m happy if people find something of interest contained in my poems. But they are not just documentaries. It’s been a problem through the ages. African-American poetry has been read sociologically.”
Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry magazine, suggests that Obama’s request for a poem and a poet is a gesture toward clarity of expression and dignity of life that some feel have been missing for a while. He says,
“In a way, the poem itself is not the point. I would guess that a president-elect decides to have an inaugural poem in the first place not in the hope of commissioning some eternal work of art, but in order to acknowledge that there is an intimate, inevitable connection between a culture’s language and its political life. That Obama wants to make such a gesture seems to me a pure good — for poetry, yes, but also for the country.”
Walt Whitman said, “To have great poetry there must be a great audience.” Perhaps, but there is little doubt that this event will provide Elizabeth Alexander with the largest audience of any poet in history– ever.
Daunting? Not overly, says Alexander. She enjoys reading her work.
“By the time you are reading a poem the real work has been done. If I ever get nervous before getting up to read, I look at the poem and say, ‘You’re done. All I have to do is let you out.’ “
sole source: Dwight Garner’s article in the NY Times on 12/25/08. www.nytimes.com
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