"After Obama spoke, Elizabeth Alexander rendered a poem." *
Inviting a poet to speak at inauguration is not a long standing tradition. Robert Frost (Kennedy), Maya Angelou (Clinton), Millard Williams and, now, Elizabeth Alexander have shared their work on the inaugural stage. President (President!) Barack Obama wrote poetry in college, so I'm not surprised that he included a poem in the festivities. The choice of Alexander, on the other hand, was a bit of surprise for some in the literary blogging sphere, since she's not a big name or major political poet (but how many "big name" living poets can most people name? I rest my case.). Alexander is hardly an unknown. She's written four books of poetry, taught literature for several years (winning teaching excellence awards in the process), and is currently chair of African American Studies at Yale. She knows Obama and his family from her days teaching at University of Chicago, so it seems that the choice, in part, was personal. As it was for Kennedy and Clinton.
What mattered most to me was that Alexander represents a large number of devoted writers and educators who work for love not fame. I thought of my grandmother who taught high school and college literature for over thirty years. I thought of my mother-in-law, who recently retired from teaching high school literature but continues to teach composition at a local college. The poem itself felt very uneven but its rougher corners may feel otherwise in a few days. When asked to describe the task at hand, Alexander replied: "Overwhelming, humbling, joyful. What we have is his understanding that the arts do have a place in day-to-day life, that poetry can still us--that is, let us pause for a moment and, as we contemplate that careful, careful language, hopefully see situations anew, from a different angle."
An official text of Alexander's poem is not available yet but someone already posted a video on line (see below). I will provide a link to a transcript of the poem but resist extensive quotation here. The transcripts I've encountered read like prose pieces, and I prefer to honor Alexander's original line breaks and punctuation (or lack thereof).
Here's a video of Maya Angelou reading "On the Pulse of Morning," my favorite of the four inauguration poems:
And, finally, Robert Frost reading "The Gift Outright." This was not the poem that he composed for the inauguration but, as you can see in the video, the glare of the sun made it difficult for him to read his page, so Frost opted for a poem he had already committed to memory. The original inauguration poem "Dedication" began with the following lines: "Summoning artists to participate/ In the august occasions of the state/ seems something for us all to celebrate." Yes, it is.