Special Classifieds Feature

Buy Washington Post Inauguration newspapers, books, and more

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.

Elizabeth Alexander. (Courtesy photo.)

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

By David A Nakamura  |  December 17, 2008; 1:05 PM ET  | Category:  Entertainment , Swearing-in Ceremony
Previous: NY Sen. Schumer Awards 175 Inauguration Tix Out of 150,000 Requests | Next: Full Schedule for Inaugural Ceremony Announced

Add Inauguration Watch to Your Site
Stay on top of the latest from Inauguration Watch! This easy-to-use widget is simple to add to your own Web site and will update every time there's a new installment of Inauguration Watch.
Get This Widget >>


It is good to see our most neglected and, to me, most powerful form of literature get a moment in the sun. Here is hoping she comes up with a wonderful poem for the event... It is more difficult to write poetry when you have to so I hope she already has something to fit the occasion.

Posted by: luchok | December 17, 2008 10:49 PM | Report abuse

Two white men, two black women. Are no black men or white women qualified to be inaugural poets? Are no Hispanic or Asians? Here, let me try: **************
I'm often called "darling" or "mama,"
And once was attacked by a llama,
But now what I says,
Is things 'bout my prez,
Who soon will be Barry O'bama.
Yes, I know there's no apostrophe in Obama, but the point, dear poetry readers, is to use literary license to make his name sound more Irish in order to fit in with the wee limerick. ***********

Posted by: Michelle54321 | December 18, 2008 9:20 AM | Report abuse

To the Editor:

Poet James Dickey read "The Strength of Fields" at President Jimmy Carter's inaugural celebration, 1977. That would make Elizabeth Alexander the fifth poet to participate in an inauguration.

Thank you, Tom Tucker

Posted by: ttucker1 | December 18, 2008 6:19 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company