Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Elizabeth Alexander Selected as Inaugural Poet

IN "ARS POETICA #100: I BELIEVE," one of my favorite poems by Elizabeth Alexander--President Elect Barack Obama's choice to be his Inaugural Poet--we hear more than the echoes of past poets like Wallace Stevens and Langston Hughes or the words of Civil Rights leaders such as Martin Luther King. We hear the soaring rhythms of Mr. Obama himself:

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?

It's that final line that sounds so much like Obama. That desire for connection, that fundamental interest in the other.

But, so does the irreverent line about the dead dog. Alexander is a serious poet who doesn't take herself too seriously. One can say the same about Obama as a politician (just check out the header photo at SemiObama to get an idea of his willingness to poke fun at his persona).

But, there is nothing funny about this occasion.

How does one write a poem as momentus as the inauguration of the first African American president?

The presidency, like poetry, is a construct. It has its rules, its genres, its rituals, and its traditions. Being successful at both requires a knowledge of those traditions but not an allegiance to them.

It is that quality in Mr. Obama that no doubt prompted him to select Alexander to read his inaugural poem--the first time since Bill Clinton's second inauguration that event will include this bizarre but charming neo-tradition. Unlike many of Obama's cabinet choices, Alexander would not have appeared on many inaugural poet short lists--including those on this site. As much a scholar and an essayist as a poet, Alexander isn't really a central figure in what some refer to as "the poetry shirt crowd"--the central cast of poets who win awards, appear in The New Yorker and Poetry on a regular basis, and move in the main poetry circles. Her books are not published by the big New York publishers or the elite university presses; instead she goes with Graywolf, one of the best independent presses--one that focuses on quality over quantity.

A professor at Yale, Alexander has published four books of poems. Her most recent, American Sublime (2005) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. It's a great book, full of jazz and popular culture references as well as riffs on the classic "ars poetica" (the art of poetry) genre in which she re-examines poetry through the lens of race and popular notions of race. This makes her an unusual candidate for such a big moment. How will she do? What tone will she take? Will her poem be funny? Earnest? Will its resonance be commensurate with that of the moment at hand?

Pundits have spent the last several weeks dissecting Mr. Obama's cabinet selections, musing over what they suggest about his presidency. Along those same lines, I'm interested in what his selection of the inaugural poet reveals.

I am impressed that he resisted the pressure to reappoint Maya Angelou or to go with more obvious choices like Nikki Giovanni, Yousef Komunyakaa, or Rita Dove, who served as the Poet Laureate. All three are outstanding writers, and all would write memorable poems. Of that, you can be sure.

Ms. Alexander is, in some ways, more risky.

The others have had a large stage. She has not. But, like Obama himself, she is a thinker. Her poems indicate someone inward-looking and nuanced. Someone thoughtful. Again, not unlike Obama.

I can say this--I'm more excited to see what kind of poem she will write than I would be by any of the three I mention above. The anticipation of her poem--like the anticipation of the Obama presidency--is that of the unknown . . .God in the details, the only way to get from here to there.


  1. I think Obama played it safe. It would have been too "risky" to ask Giovanni or Dove to read the inaugural poem.

    But, at least he picked a woman!

  2. Ahhhhh - my favorite Weekly Rader blog to date. This lapsed English major enjoyed the dose of Alexander's poetry. And reading the words reminded me of the electric charge I felt on the night of the election. Can't wait for our man to be in charge. GOBAMA! (that's shorthand for "go obama".) I know, I know, all the pundits can talk about is how there's much work to do, he has an impossible task etc.etc. - but there's a fundamental goodness there that will get us to a better place sooner than everyone thinks. At least that's what me'thinks.....