Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inaugural Poet Elizabeth Alexander



Meet Elizabeth Alexander, Inaugural Poet. Today she answered the call of President Barak Obama to grace his swearing in ceremony with a poem. Her poem, titled Praise Song For The Day is a poem of masterfully controlled free verse form. Alexander began reminding us how we pass each other, look or do not look at each other. She lamented: "all about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din." She kept to the topic of change, what is needed. "Say it plain, that many have died for this day," she said and she urged us to go beyond merely what's right to choose love, "love that casts a widening pool of light."


Elizabeth Alexander is only the fourth poet to read at an inauguration, following Robert Frost in 1961, Maya Angelou in 1993 and Miller Williams in 1997.

The New York Times Web Site has posted a copy of the text, however the poet's line breaks have not been preserved. Also, I note that the last line as reported by NYT is not as read to the world by the poet. Graywolf Press will publish a chapbook of Alexander's inaugural poem.

Elizabeth Alexander is a poet, essayist, playwright, and teacher born in New York City and raised in Washington, DC. Alexander has degrees from Yale University and Boston University and completed her Ph.D. in English at the University of Pennsylvania. She has published five books of poems: The Venus Hottentot (1990), Body of Life (1996), Antebellum Dream Book (2001), American Sublime (2005), which was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize and was one of the American Library Association’s “Notable Books of the Year;” and, most recently, her first young adult collection (co-authored with Marilyn Nelson), Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color (2008 Connecticut Book Award). Her two collections of essays are The Black Interior (2004) and Power and Possibility (2007), and her play, “Diva Studies,” was produced at the Yale School of Drama.

Professor Alexander is the first recipient of the Alphonse Fletcher, Sr. Fellowship for work that “contributes to improving race relations in American society and furthers the broad social goals of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954.” She is the 2007 winner of the first Jackson Prize for Poetry, awarded by Poets and Writers. Other awards include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, two Pushcart Prizes, the George Kent Award, given by Gwendolyn Brooks, a Guggenheim fellowship as well as the Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching at University of Chicago. She currently teaches in the Department African American Studies at Yale University.

17 comments:

Glenda C. Beall said...

Nancy, I'm glad you wrote about this poet. I didn't get to see her and I was curious as to if a poet would read and who it would be. I'll look for her poem online and see if I can see or hear it.

Nancy Simpson said...

Glenda, the Elizabeth Alexander Inaugural poem was
published in the New York Times without the line breaks. It looks like we will have to buy a chapbook copy from Greywolf Press to get the real thing. I'm disappointed about that. Newspapers do not seem to be able to do line breaks.

I heard the poet read the poem. It moved me.

Brenda Kay Ledford said...

Nancy,

Thanks for this great bio about Dr. Alexander. I wanted to know more about her when she read her wonderful poem at President Obama's inaugration.

Judy said...

I'm so glad you wrote about Elizabeth Alexander, Nancy. I enjoyed learning more about her. I was so excited to hear that a poet was chosen to read at President Obama's inaugeration. I read that he reads and enjoys poetry. :) My friend, Victoria, has Alexander's poem I believe.(http://seastarvsh.blogspot.com/)

'Praise Song for the Day'


Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each others’ eyes or not, about to speak or speaking. All about us is noise. All about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din, each one of our ancestors on our tongues. Someone is stitching up a hem, darning a hole in a uniform, patching a tire, repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.

ALEXANDER: A farmer consider the changing sky; A teacher says, “Take out your pencils. Begin.”

We encounter each other in words, Words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed; Words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark the will of someone and then others who said, “I need to see what’s on the other side; I know there’s something better down the road.”

We need to find a place where we are safe; We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain, that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle; praise song for the day. Praise song for every hand-lettered sign; The figuring it out at kitchen tables.

Some live by “Love thy neighbor as thy self.”

Others by first do no harm, or take no more than you need.

What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light. Love with no need to preempt grievance.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp -- praise song for walking forward in that light.

Elizabeth Alexander

tipper said...

Interesting post about her-I had never heard of Elizabeth Alexander until the inauguration.

Kathryn Stripling Byer said...

Nancy, are these the line-breaks in the poem left by "Judy"? If so, the poem is more disappointing on the page than I'd expected. I've not heard positive reactions from most of the other poets or non-poets I've talked with. After 2 days of reflecting on the poem, my friend Penelope Schott, a fabulous poet, says she's decided it's a decent first draft and that Alexander did not deliver it as the occasion deserved. (She had initially thought it was ok, overcome by the Obama speech, I think. ) I will be posting some reactions to this poem on my laureate site soon. I
was very, very disappointed by it. It needs revision. It needs to be revised into real poetry.

Nancy Simpson said...

Regarding Dr. Elizabeth Alexander's inaugural Poem "Praise Song for the Day"

Kay, my disappointment is that finally a poet was asked to stand before our nation and read a poem, but afterward, we could not get a copy of it. Hardly any human can take it all in by only hearing the poem read once. The New York Times butchered the line breaks. That is the real problem.

Then what happened? Poets began making and publishing across the internet their own line breaks. That behavior cannot be allowed. To answer your question, no. Judy's post of the inaugural poem is not correct. I do not know where she got the copy. There were many versions to choose from on the internet.

Today around noon The New York Times printed another copy they say was provided by Graywolf Press. Who can guess if G P has the definitive copy. I know they are to publish the poem, but it is feasible, knowing how poets work, that this might not be the final copy of the poem. The end of the poem as given today is not the last lines the poet read at the presidential inauguration.

I stand by what I said. I heard the poem read by the poet and I was moved emotionally and spiritually. After reading all the versions and after reading the poem today, I suspect she is still making changes at this moment. I know poets, and I believe this poet Elizabeth Alexander will reclaim her poem. In the end it has to be hers. Only then can it be ours.

karenh said...

I just watched the Youtube video of her reading the poem at the inauguration: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B0v4B1Xa3Eo and compared it to the version on Poets.org http://poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/20545?gclid=CI6QzpHmopgCFQKHxwod0Ca_mw where the line breaks are as she read them. The last line is the same too. As she reads, she turns a page before "picked the cotton," creating a long break that interrupts the flow, but of course she was nervous, so that's forgivable!

I think there are some very nice lines in her poem and come clunky ones. I especially like the first six stansa and the last three. I agree with Kathryn that it could be much improved with editing. And I agree with Nancy that Elizabeth is probably already doing that.
Karen

Nancy Simpson said...

Thanks Karen,

I too just read the poem on YouTube. I was wrong.
She read it as written in the Graywolf Press version
that was in the New York Times today.

Meanwhile, I also saw that the Los Angeles TImes printed the poem today without her line breaks.

There has to be something else I am supposed to be doing.

karenh said...

please excuse the typo on "stanzas" in my above comment!

Nancy Simpson said...

Karen, Thanks for your comments. That is what keeps
us poets talking.

Kathryn Stripling Byer said...

Nancy, I found the poem and have it on my desktop--three line stanzas which give the poem some shape and gather up some slack There are to my mind too many linking verbs in the first stanzas, which of course weaken the action-- and prepositions that go awry. Preps are tricky. There are good lines that could have been built on. I hope she will revise. And work on her delivery.
Yes to your comment about being unable to get a copy. The meaning of that is something we should be discussing, as much as th epoem, howlittle its accuracy is cared about. We have to make a point ot this. When Maya A. read the poen was available immediately.

Judy said...

Karen, so interesting to hear Dr. Alexander speak the words that we now have. Thanks for the sites.

karenh said...

At first I didn't like the sentence structure and the repetition of "is" in the first few stanzas (see my "Liven up Your Writing" article on this blog, Jan 10), but then I thought maybe it worked for the mood of the poem. It also hit me that she wanted to write a poem that everyone could understand (fourth grade reading level?), so she chose the simplest words (and not always the best). I’m wondering, too, whether she froze up a little; who wouldn’t be intimidated by her task? Think of how horrible it would be to have writer’s block, when the whole world expects your poem!

I did not hear her read it live; I only saw the YouTube video. I’m sure that experiencing it live would have induced the proper goose bumps! The poem does seem to have the right spirit for the occasion.

Nancy Simpson said...

Kay, Hello Hello. I remember too that Maya Angelo's poem was immediately available. I recall that the Associated Press called and asked our own Janice Townley Moore for a comment on Angelo's poem. My problem in all of this is I thought I should have access to a copy of this inaugural poet's poem.

You are right, so right and there is evidence that what you say is correct -- how little accuracy is cared about. America is failing in its responsibility to language.

It is time for me to shut up abut it, but I cannot be quiet. Yes, I stick my my foot in my mouth. No need to mention that even the sacred oath of office had to be redone because the words, the order of the words did not matter. Before the world, I am ashamed.

Nancy Simpson said...

Victoria said:

Nancy, you asked e on my blog comment where I got the text of the inaugural poem I posted. here is the link. I don't know if the line breaks are original. They are as they were in the version Robert Lee Brewer linked us to from Poetic Asides http://www.nowpublic.com/world/barack-obamas-inaugural-poem-praise-song-day-full-text.

January 22, 2009 7:01 PM

Nancy Simpson said...

Victoria, Thank you for getting back to me. Judy sent the poem as you had found it and I printed it out. Yesterday, The New York Times published a second version which they said was from Greywolf Press. Geawolf Press has contracted to publish the inaugural poem. I printed out their second copy which at last did have line breaks. Looking at both of them now, I have to tell you they do not have the same line breaks.
Graywolf Press says the first line is:
Each day we go about our business,

Your copy as Judy sent it to me shows:
Each day we go about our business, walking past
(Judy's copy is here on the comments)

I was mistaken in saying what the poet read was not the same as the copy. But, when I viewed the replay of the reading of the poem itself, it follows the Graywolf Press version.

Thanks Victoria. What do we have here? A few women who cared enough to take a moment from their busy lives to give attention to language. That is a good thing.