Elizabeth Alexander will read a poem for the Inauguration of Barack Obama this morning. She will be the fifth poet selected by a president: JFK chose Robert Frost, Jimmy Carter chose James Dickey, Bill Clinton had Maya Angelou for his first swearing-in and Miller Williams for his second. Alexander has been applauded as the perfect selection by Obama by many, as her work is both intellectually complex yet stays true to her roots.
Alexander was born in Harlem in 1962. She attended Yale, where she is now a professor and will assume the role of Chairship over the university’s department of African American studies later this year. She received a BA at BU, and a PhD from University of Pennsylvania. Alexander’s father was an adviser to Lyndon Johnson and secretary of the Army, her mother is a professor of African American history at George Washington University. Her brother works along with Obama on his transition team. Alexander has two children. She has five published books of poetry, one of which was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 2005. Her work has been featured in listless poetry collections.
The poet, as a tiny little one-year-old was in a stroller with her parents close to the Lincoln Memorial when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech. Some 45 years later, she will preside over a crowd that shadows even King’s, with literally the whole world watching the African American president sworn into office, and recite her verse as a blessing from which we as a country can begin again.
The following is a letter she wrote late last year concerning the honor our new president has bestowed upon her:
“Words matter. Language matters. We live in and express ourselves with language, and that is how we communicate and move through the world in community.
President-elect Obama has shown us at all turns his respect for the power of language. The care with which he has always used language along with his evident understanding that language and words bear power and tell us who we are across differences, have been hallmarks of his political career. My joy at being selected to compose and deliver a poem on the occasion of Obama’s Presidential inaugural emanates from my deep respect for him as a person of meaningful, powerful words that move us forward. And as his campaign was a movement much larger than the man himself, I understand that as a country we stand poised to make tremendous choices about our collective future. The distillation of language in poetry, its precision, can help us see sharply in the midst of many conundrums.
This is a powerful moment in our history. The joy I feel is sober and profound because so much struggle and sacrifice have brought us to this day. And there is so much work to be done ahead of us. Poetry is not meant to cheer; rather, poetry challenges, and moves us towards transformation. Language distilled and artfully arranged shifts our experience of the words – and the worldviews – we live in.
This is only the fourth time in our history that a President has featured a poet at his inaugural. I hope that this portends well for the future of the arts in our everyday and civic life.”