Inauguration Poems

Happy New Year! Last semester one of my professors raised questions of who would be Obama’s inaugural poet. She hoped that he would select a Latina, but recent news proved that such will not be the case. According to The Wallstreet Journal:

Elizabeth Alexander is writing the most important poem of her life, a work she’ll read Jan. 20 at President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration.

Ms. Alexander, 46 years old, will be the first poet since Miller Williams read at President Clinton’s second inauguration in 1997 to grace such an event in an official role. “That she’s been chosen means millions will hear her read and will want to know more about her poetry,” says Fiona McCrae, publisher of Graywolf Press, which publishes four of Ms. Alexander’s books. Those include “American Sublime,” which was a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

In her work, Ms. Alexander explores such issues as sex, race, history and family ties. Her rhythmic, vivid verse can be, by turns, humorous or melancholy, and is often shot through with contemporary references. Ms. McCrae said she believes the poet was chosen because “Mr. Obama personally responds to her work.”

(Read the full interview . . . )

As a writer, can you imagine the sort of pressure she’s under right now? During my search for more information on Alexander, I came across an article in the New York Times that explores the three previous inauguration poems. They also provided a few snippets from Alexander’s poetry to give us a sort of sneak peek of what we have to look forward to. Read on:

Summoning artists to participate
In the august occasions of the state
Seems something artists ought to celebrate.

Those are pleasant thoughts, but awful poetry — probably the worst three lines Robert Frost ever put to paper. Tellingly it was work for hire: the opening lines of “Dedication,” the poem Frost composed for John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration.

Famously, and perhaps blessedly, Frost never had the chance to declaim them. The high wind and strong sun that day conspired to make his typescript unreadable. Unruffled, he pulled a mighty poem from memory, his own “Gift Outright,” with its ringing first line: “The land was ours before we were the land’s.”

Frost was the first poet to read at a presidential inauguration, and there have been only two others in the almost five decades since . . .

Frost’s “Dedication” was stiff and dutiful. (Another sample rhyme: “Heroic deeds were done./Elizabeth the First and England won.”) Ms. Angelou’s “On the Pulse of Morning” was touchy-feely, multi-culti and crammed with shout-outs:

So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew
The African, the Native American, the Sioux,
The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek,
The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheikh,
The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
The Privileged, the Homeless, the Teacher.

Miller Williams seemed to get it about right. His inaugural poem, “Of History and Hope,” was dignified, with a weather-beaten resonance. It began:

We have memorized America,
how it was born and who we have been and where.
In ceremonies and silence we say the words,
telling the stories, singing the old songs.

What the world will hear at Mr. Obama’s inauguration is the work of a woman whose verse makes a sharply different kind of music from that of any of the inaugural poets who have preceded her. The principal obsessions in her four books of verse — race and history, love and family — are played out in poems that can buzz with an electric and angular ellipticity, as in “Emancipation,” printed here in its entirety:

Corncob constellation,
oyster shell, drawstring pouch, dry bones.
Gris gris in the rafters.
Hoodoo in the sleeping nook.
Mojo in Linda Brent’s crawlspace.
Nineteenth century corncob cosmogram
set on the dirt floor, beneath the slant roof,
left intact the afternoon
that someone came and told those slaves
“We’re free.”

At other times her voice is calm and plain-spoken, as in this snippet from the poem “Smile”:

When I see a black man smiling
like that, nodding and smiling
with both hands visible, mouthing
“Yes, Officer,” across the street,
I think of my father, who taught us
the words “cooperate,” “officer,”
to memorize badge numbers,
who has seen black men shot at
from behind in the warm months north.

Read the full NYT article.

Personally, I would have liked to see Gil Scott Heron do the inauguration poem. Again, can you imagine? Let’s think outside of the box a little. Obama should have held an inaugural poem competition on YouTube or something. (giggle) Do you think any poets are hating on Obama’s selection? After all, she is a close friend of the Obama family. I wonder.

Happy reading ya’ll.

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