Elizabeth Alexander’s Prep for Inaugural Poem

Yale poet Elizabeth Alexander will give the inaugural poem at President Obama’s swearing in. She spoke on the Lehrer NewsHour about her preparation:15-alexanderforweb

“My parents were very committed to civil rights, worked their whole lives toward the goals of the civil rights movement. And, so, of course, they took me when I was a baby to the March on Washington.

And to think that here, in — in that same space in Washington, D.C., we’re going to be at a quite different moment, that in some ways is the civil rights movement coming not to total fruition, but at least coming to a moment where we can stop and say that some remarkable progress has been made, is a beautiful circle.”

Watch the video here.

“I think that poetry, cross-culturally, is one of the ways that people tell the story of who we are, of who they are. So, if you look at praise songs in various African countries, if you look at “The Canterbury Tales,” if you look at “The Odyssey,” these are all ways that people have said in verse: This is who we are. This is our story. This is how we came to this moment.

So, I think that’s one of the eternal purposes of poetry. And I think, also, hopefully, what poetry does is distill language with a kind of precision that reminds us what it means to take care with the word, that the word has tremendous power, that each word matters, and that we — if we are mindful with our language to speak to each other across the many differences between us, that that is the way that I think we’re more able to communicate precisely with one another.”

Poet Elizabeth Alexander to read at Obama’s Inauguration

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

Elizabeth Alexander

I like to say your
name because it sounds
like an era or period
in time when kingdoms
were won…

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.