Inaugural Poet Selected: Elizabeth Alexander
After a hiatus of more than a decade, poetry is returning to the inauguration of the American president.
The Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies announced today that Elizabeth Alexander, a prize-winning poet at Yale University who grew up in Washington, will read at the swearing in next month of President-elect Barack Obama.
It is the first time that “poetry’s old-fashioned praise,” as Robert Frost called it, will be featured at the ceremony since Bill Clinton's second swearing in back in 1997.
Alexander, 45, would be only the fourth poet to read at a swearing in after Frost, who read at John F. Kennedy’s in 1961; Maya Angelou, who read at Clinton’s in 1993; and Miller Williams, who read in 1997, according to government officials.
Her Web site describes Alexander this way:
She is the author of four books of poems, The Venus Hottentot, Body of Life, Antebellum Dream Book, and American Sublime, which was one of three finalists for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize. She is also a scholar of African-American literature and culture and recently published a collection of essays, The Black Interior. She has read her work across the U.S. and in Europe, the Caribbean, and South America, and her poetry, short stories, and critical prose have been published in dozens of periodicals and anthologies. She has received many grants and honors, most recently the Alphonse Fletcher, Sr. Fellowship for work that “contributes to improving race relations in American society and furthers the broad social goals of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954,” and the 2007 Jackson Prize for Poetry, awarded by Poets and Writers. She is a professor at Yale University, and for the academic year 2007-2008 she is a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.
You can read a selection of Alexander's poems on her web site -- or read one, "Ars Poetica #100: I Believe," below.
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?
Alexander also has audio available on her web site.
-- By Michael E. Ruane
David A Nakamura
December 17, 2008; 1:05 PM ET
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