Sunday, January 11, 2009

Elizabeth Alexander: "Poetry is the human voice"

Inaugural poet Elizabeth Alexander was one year old when her parents took her to the March on Washington in August, 1963. Next week Ms. Alexander will stand on the Capitol steps, facing the Lincoln Memorial where the Rev. Martin Luther King spoke to 300,000 people, and participate in an equally historic moment when poetry and political ceremony will mark the beginning of the Obama presidency.

The poet has referred to her journey from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol as "a beautiful circle." Only three times in Presidential history have poets been invited to speak at the Inauguration; at both Clinton ceremonies (Maya Angelou in January 1993 and Miller Williams in January 1997) and, most memorably, in January 1961. An aging Robert Frost was unable to read the page in his hands, obscured by the sun's glare, and instead recited another poem, "The Gift Outright," from memory: "The land was ours before we were the land's. / She was our land more than a hundred years / Before we were her people. She was ours / In Massachusetts, in Virginia. But we were England's, still colonials..."

Ms. Alexander will join this select group, and there is some continuity to her selection as Inaugural poet: Yale professor and Harlem-born, her poetry has a sense of history and historical place. In a recent television interview she emphasized the role of poetry as a communal, vocal form that tells "this is how we came to this moment." In preparing her Inaugural poem she looked at work by Yeats, Whitman, Gwendolyn Brooks, poets who encompass a larger view of the world and our place in it, whose words are strongly and plainly spoken. She went on to describe poetry as "one of the ways people tell who they are," just as her own poems are rooted in experience and the echoing moment. Here, in an excerpt from "Boston Year," the poet describes her initial period of confusion in a new city:

My first week in Cambridge a car full of white boys
tried to run me off the road, and spit through the window,
open to ask directions. I was always asking directions
and always driving: to an Armenian market

in Watertown to buy figs and string cheese, apricots,
dark spices and olives from barrels, tubes of paste
with unreadable Arabic labels. I ate
stuffed grape leaves and watched my lips swell in the mirror ...

Popcorn and coffee was dinner. When I fainted
from migraine in the grocery store, a Portuguese
man above me mouthed: “No breakfast.” He gave me
orange juice and chocolate bars. The color red

sprang into relief singing Wagner’s Walküre.

Entire tribes gyrated and drummed in my head.
I learned the samba from a Brazilian man
so tiny, so festooned with glitter I was certain
that he slept inside a filigreed, Fabergé egg.
No one at the door: no salesmen, Mormons, meter
readers, exterminators, no Harriet Tubman,
no one. Red notes sounding in a grey trolley town.

Her poetry will create, as Dwight Garner has written, "a sharply different kind of music" from poets who preceeded her. Calling her words "electric and angular," Garner notes the "outsize platform" Ms. Alexander will have for her poetry at the Inauguration; given the interest in Obama and the media coverage of the history-making event, it is likely to be heard by more people at one time than any other poem ever composed.

That would seem to be an imposing task. Ms. Alexander has said that her goal in writing the poem has been to offer "the moment of pause and shift that poetry makes possible" in such an occasion. She is aware that public poetry also makes demands that are different than words on the printed page: "When there is an audience beyond the one ... the poem connects (in ways) you can't really control." The American heritage "is so rich, there is a tremendous opportunity for the imagination ... the challenge is to savor the occasion but find words that people can hold on to."

For a ceremonial occasion marking this unique historical moment, and a President-elect celebrated as much for his intellect as his pragmatism, Ms. Alexander's poetry will offer not only a look back but, in her own words, "how we can contribute to the challenges ahead of us." The Pulitzer Prize-nominated poet (American Sublime, 2005) tells us that challenges and dreams continue to be the stuff of poetry, as well as our history.

To think, in childhood I missed only
one day of school per year. I went

to ballet class four days a week

at four-forty-five and on

Saturdays, beginning always
with plie, ending with curtsy.

To think, I knew only industry,
the industry of my race
and of immigrants, the radio
tuned always to the station

that said, Line up your summer
job months in advance. Work hard
and do not shame your family,
who worked hard to give you what you have.
There is no sin but sloth. Burn

to a wick and keep moving.

I avoided sleep for years,
up at night replaying
evening news stories about
nearby jailbreaks, fat people
who ate fried chicken and woke up
dead. In sleep I am looking

for poems in the shape of open
of birds flying in formation,

or open arms saying, I forgive you, all.

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