The POTUSE has named Elizabeth Alexander as the Poet Laureate of his Inauguration. She will join the select company of poets —Robert Frost (JFK), Maya Angelou (Clinton ’93), and Miller Williams (Clinton ’97)— who have read the poems they wrote at the Inauguration of the President who invited them.
Ms. Alexander is the incoming Chair of the Department of African-American Studies at Yale. She met the Obamas when she was teaching at the University of Chicago. “We’re of the exact same generation. They are people with whom I have a lot in common,” she said.
As The New York Times reports,
Mr. Obama’s inauguration, on Jan. 20, calls for an “occasional poem,” written to commemorate a specific event. This is not precisely what Ms. Alexander does, but she is preparing for the challenge.
“Writing an occasional poem has to attend to the moment itself,” she said in an interview, “but what you hope for, as an artist, is to create something that has integrity and life that goes beyond the moment.”
To prepare, she has delved into W. H. Auden, particularly his “Musée des Beaux Arts” (“About suffering they were never wrong/The Old Masters”), and the work of Gwendolyn Brooks, the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize, for poetry. Auden, she said, “asked very large questions about how we stand in history.” And Brooks has had a major influence on her work.
“She should have been the one, were she living, for this,” Ms. Alexander said of the honor bestowed by Mr. Obama. “The Bard of the South Side. She wrote from Obama’s neighborhood for so many years.” Here she recited Brooks’s familiar line: “Conduct your blooming in the noise and whip of the whirlwind.”
“Language like that,” Ms. Alexander said, “has eternal life.”
Ms. Alexander says that she doesn’t start writing with any message in mind; she likens her writing process to a radio antenna listening for the right language. “You’re always trying to catch a rhythm. It’s something I will be chipping away at every day.”
Some of Ms. Alexander’s poems may be found on the excellent www.poets.org website, and even more on her own website (linked to her name above).
Ars Poetica #100: I Believe
Poetry, I tell my students,
is idiosyncratic. Poetry
is where we are oursleves,
(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 the loudest)
is the human voice,
and are we not of interest to each other?