"Elizabeth Alexander may turn out to be the perfect inaugural poet," says Al Young, California's poet laureate from 2005 to 2008.
"To me, she arrives at the perfect hour," says Aaron Fagan, poet and editor at Scientific American. "Also a surprising choice, not at all polite or safe."
"Her selection really affirms our generation of American poets in ways that will resonate for a long time to come," says Herman Beavers, an associate professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, fellow poet, and longtime friend.
They're reacting to news that Alexander - Yale professor, Pulitzer finalist, Penn Ph.D. and member of a longtime political family - has been chosen to deliver an original poem at the inauguration of Barack Obama next month.
Alexander, speaking by phone from her office at Yale, says she "was thrilled to hear from the inaugural committee" and fervently wishes "to do a great job."
Brent Colburn, an Obama inaugural spokesperson, calls the poet "incredibly gifted" and says her selection "demonstrates the important role that the arts and literature can play in helping to bring our country together."
If that sounds political, it's because it is. The choice of Alexander is more than just an invitation to a poet; it's also an attempt to define this moment in U.S. politics and history.
This will be only the fourth time a poet has been made part of the inaugural ceremonies; in each case, the man being sworn in has been a Democrat. Robert Frost, then 86, braved the chill to recite "The Gift Outright" at John F. Kennedy's 1961 inaugural. Maya Angelou read at Bill Clinton's first swearing-in, Miller Williams at his second.
Al Filreis, Kelly Professor of English at Penn, says Alexander "doesn't have the standing Frost had in 1961, but that doesn't matter"; she's a "better poet" than the popular Angelou.
Born in 1962 in Harlem, Alexander grew up in Washington. She did undergraduate work at Yale and completed a master's degree at Boston University before writing her doctoral thesis at Penn on 20th-century African American poets. She has taught widely, including stints at Germantown Friends School and Haverford College.
Her selection is "a bit of a generational shift," according to Robert Von Hallberg, a professor at the University of Chicago. Part of that is age - at 46, Alexander is the youngest inaugural poet so far - and part has to do with history. Beavers calls her "the absolute right choice, generationally speaking . . . She's very different from an earlier generation of African American poets, who established themselves with an 1960s rhetoric of anger. Her poetry befits Obama's outlook: measured, comfortable with being a cultural hybrid."
Alexander's poetry fits Obama's politics in taking a view of race and culture that will challenge Americans of all backgrounds. Whether writing about her own life or the lives of American slaves, her great theme is multiplicity, the fact that most people combine many bloodlines and historical lines. She constantly asserts that black people, any people, any culture, are not just one thing, but a variety of places and people and voices.
That's very American, as is her powerful directness. Young admires the way she "artfully uses everyday speech and vernacular diction to conceal a vision of the world that is far more complex than the buy-and-sell viewpoint you'll get from the corporations and mass media they control."
The word that comes to mind for her is
Alexander says that quality in a black poet shouldn't surprise people. "African American poets have always been a cosmopolitan people. We think of Langston Hughes as a 'Harlem poet' or an 'urban poet,' but he had been to several continents by the time he was 19. It's an oversight not to understand black people as citizens of the world."
She is most excited to share the inaugural stage with violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, singer Aretha Franklin and other artists. "That art is visible and part of the conversation - it's very meaningful." She connects this with Obama's expressed wish to make the White House "a people's house" and to have concerts, poetry readings and arts events be a part of life at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Frost was a Kennedy fan and Angelou an often-vocal supporter of Clinton, but Alexander is close to both politics and the president-elect (they taught together at the University of Chicago). Her brother Mark, a law professor at Seton Hall University, was policy director for the Obama campaign and is a member of the transition team. Her father, Clifford Alexander Jr., a lawyer in the Johnson administration, became the first African American secretary of the Army in the Carter administration.
Her ease with politics and power has some in the literary world a little uneasy. Fagan says it has become a "hot issue" on some literary blogs. But Alexander is a poet first, and now she has this poem to write. Quite an assignment. Is she scared?
"Not scared, but challenged," she replies. "My charge is to write an occasional poem, so you must serve the specific moment, but you also have to write it so that it has a meaningful life after that occasion is over."
As she writes a poem that will be heard by millions, she might be pleased to hear Fagan's story. As an undergraduate at Hampshire College, he was told to memorize a poem from a poetry journal. He went to the bookstore and got a copy of Poetry magazine. "And I came across a poem called 'L.A. By Night,' by Elizabeth Alexander," he says. "It just stole the show - the music of it, how right-now it sounded. It still stays with me and inspired me to stick with poetry."
Alexander agrees that there is a powerful political message in Obama's selection of her. "By bringing poetry into such a prominent place on that extraordinary day, he's demonstrating his own belief that words matter, that using language with care and precision - we poets try to be exemplars of that - really matters. We must take care with the words we live in."
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
- Elizabeth Alexander
I didn't want to write a poem that said "blackness
is," because we know better than anyone
that we are not one or ten or ten thousand things
Not one poem We could count ourselves forever
and never agree on the number. When the first
black Olympic gymnast was black and on TV I called
home to say it was colored
on channel three
in nineteen eighty-eight. Most mornings these days
Ralph Edwards comes into the bedroom and says,
this is your life. Get up and look for color,
look for color everywhere."
- Elizabeth Alexander