Elizabeth Alexander, poet and Yale professor, has been chosen to read her poetry at President Obama’s inauguration. Very cool! One of D.C.’s leading ladies of letters gets to come home and do her thing on the South Lawn. Alexander is a native of Washington and one of America’s leading poets.
I don’t know if Obama’s Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies reads E. Ethelbert Miller’s E-Notes, but he suggested Elizabeth Alexander back in July. That’s what I call visionary! (He also suggested Aretha and/or Stevie Wonder to sing. Let’s see what happens.)
Here’s Ethelbert’s poem in honor of Elizabeth Alexander from his collection Whispers, Secrets & Promises
I like to say your
name because it sounds
like an era or period
in time when kingdoms
—E. Ethelbert Miller
I suggest reading Alexander’s essay Black Alive and Looking Straight at You: The Legacy of June Jordan as a nice introduction to her thoughts on poetry, activism, and politics. “Poetry,” she writes, “is sacred speech that marks the sacred in our lives.” Below is an excerpt from that essay:
I have been thinking for a long time about poetry and politics through the instructive examples of June Jordan, the woman and her work. What is the “job” or the work of a poem, and what are its limitations? Why would a writer speak in the morning in the poems, in the afternoon their body while teaching or doing other activist wok, and in the evening in prose essays? What can each form do that the other cannot? Most specifically, what do we want to protect in poetry if we believe, as I do and as Jordan did, that poetry * is* sacred speech that marks the sacred in our lives?
There are poetry people who think that politics, per se, has no place in poetry. This is silly, and it is amazing how strong a hold this idea has had when it is so empty. For time immemorial, across geographies and peoples, poetry has taken as its subject politics, that is, the affairs of the polis, the community and its people. Some people think of themselves as gatekeepers, defenders of a culture, as though culture is something that can be owned by anyone. Culture is like ambient gas; once it is released, there is no collecting it and bringing it back home. This is a great and magical thing: Culture belongs to the world that occasions it. But we could usefully think about the rich and edifying aspects of form that mark discourses in particular genre. How should a poem attend to the business of its chosen form, the care and style with which the box is made rather than what is put inside the box?
Poets do have responsibility to make images that compel, to distill language, to write with model precision and specificity that is what poetry has to offer to other genres. It makes something happen with language that takes the breath away or shifts the mind. For the poem, which is after all not the newspaper, must move beyond the information it contains while simultaneously imparting the information it contains. Jordan’s commitment to poetry was constant, and it is in those words that we find her simultaneous devotion to the largest possible picture–her keen analyses of the world situation–and to the smallest detail–her tending of language.