Poetry News

Elizabeth Alexander to Read at Obama Inauguration


Yale professor and celebrated poet of memory and race Elizabeth Alexander has been selected to read as part of Barack Obama's Inaugural Ceremony in January.
Alexander speculated on poets in the age of Obama in the Poetry Foundation's Obamapoetics podcast last November, and now she joins Robert Frost, Miller Williams, and Maya Angelou on the select list of inaugural poets.

Originally Published: December 17th, 2008

Travis Nichols is the author of two books of poetry: Iowa (2010, Letter Machine Editions) and See Me Improving (2010); and he is the author of two novels: Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder (2012) and The More You Ignore Me (2013). He has contributed to The Believer, Paste, The...

  1. December 17, 2008

    A great choice.

  2. December 17, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    How sad. I would've thought Alexander was cannier than to place her art in the service of state power, however wide the delusion that for the first time in history that power will be used benevolently.

  3. December 17, 2008
     Barbara Jane Reyes

    Beautiful. She is a great choice,

  4. December 17, 2008
     Dean Rader

    She is a really interesting choice. I actually write about why I think she's a good choice on today's Weekly Rader.

  5. December 17, 2008

    "in the service of state power"....that is hilarious. As if "the state" has plans to use her poetry for some nefarious purpose.

  6. December 18, 2008

    & this is the one where poetry meets the queen of soul...

  7. December 18, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    Oh, Matt. Must I really point out that it's not a question of to what use the state puts her poetry (no use at all besides feel-good boosterism, in this case)? Let's try this: would you read your poetry if invited to at a state-sponsored event celebrating, say, Kim Jong-Il? Or the Ayatollah? Or Putin? No? Well, why not? The American government has been responsible for more crimes than all those regimes put together just in the last ten years. Unless this election has changed something structurally (the carryover of the defense secretary suggests otherwise), then what responsible reason could any poet have for pimping him- or herself out to it?

  8. December 18, 2008
     Tom Tucker

    To the Editor:
    Poet James Dickey read "The Strength of Fields" at President Jimmy Carter's inaugural celebration, 1977. That would make Elizabeth Alexander the fifth poet to participate in an inauguration.
    Thank you, Tom Tucker

  9. December 18, 2008
     Rich Villar

    Ah yes, Michael, Elizabeth Alexander is the pawn of a bloodthirsty colonialist in progressive clothing. Thank you, Che Guevara.
    Perhaps Obama should have selected some lang-po hack to baffle the assembled multitudes out of their comfort zones. I think I'll just enjoy Elizabeth's poem and try not to read too far into the End Times.

  10. December 18, 2008
     Emily Warn

    Why is it that posts on Harriet that announce awards or achievements of other poets often turn into dissing contests among commenters, or opportunities to debate ideology? Perhaps it's the impersonal/personal nature of the blogspace. Perhaps it's that commenters think no one
    beyond the poetry world is reading their words. They are. Perhaps it's that it takes more time and thought, and makes one more vulnerable, to praise someone's work and their accomplishments than to use that work for one's own purposes--whether aesthetic or personal.
    I wish that more of us could follow Elizabeth Alexander's lead. To listen to her speak on behalf of poetry and other poets--a task that she seems always to be doing--is to encounter an intellect every bit as generous and culturally astute as Obama's.

  11. December 18, 2008
     Rich Villar

    Point of fact: Elizabeth Alexander hasn't sold out her art to the imperialist regime of Michael Robbins' ideological imagination. And she certainly hasn't "pimped herself out" to it. (An interesting, telling choice of words.) Nor is Barack Obama, in fact, Kim Jong-Il, Augusto Pinochet, or George W. Bush.
    I don't think it's a stretch to call out an absurd statement for what it is. I don't think it inappropriate to question the attack here. I would be happy to tell this to Mr. Robbins in person, mixed/public company or no.
    I don't believe in keeping quiet. That said, Emily, if what I said contributed to an air of contentiousness here, I apologize.
    Like all of the communities and colleagues who know Elizabeth and her work, I'm 100% thrilled for her invitation, and no amount of cynical commentary can change what an wonderful moment it will be for her and for the country.

  12. December 19, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    Geez, is it too much to ask that people just respond to what I actually said? (Oh, wait, this is the internet; it is too much to ask.) No one is denying Alexander's intellect or her worth as a poet. Everyone here thinks she's a marvelous poet. Right? OK. My question has nothing, really, to do with Alexander. (&, uh, definitely doesn't have to do with colonialism, in any of its guises.) I simply made a very clear, very banal point, almost a truism: poets should not perform as state functionaries, no matter how benevolent liberals have deluded themselves into believing the state will magically become. "Debating ideology" is one of the things we do when we talk about poems & poets. Ideology actually comes along with poets & poetry, whether anyone likes it or not. That's how ideology works.
    I will say I find it pretty depressing that so many intelligent people are convinced that being "generous & culturally astute" somehow makes a politician any less of a politician -- or that those qualities will enable the President-elect to be the first President in history to act as a force for justice, freedom, equality, & all those other things liberals like. His cabinet's certainly shaping up nicely, ain't it?

  13. December 19, 2008
     Aaron Fagan

    James Dickey's 1977 recitation was at Jimmy Carter's Inaugural Gala, which is different from the Inaugural Ceremony. Four is correct.

  14. December 19, 2008

    Michael--Isn't that just a bit *too* more-radical-than-thou? Just asking.
    Hooray Elizabeth! Can you put the words "Please nationalize our health care" in an uplifting poem, I wonder?

  15. December 19, 2008

    Dickey, while taking part in Carter's inaugural celebration (specifically the Inaugural Gala), did not participate in the inauguration ceremony itself, which, I believe, is what is being counted here.

  16. December 19, 2008

    I have to say that Michael is right, here. Let's remember that Alexander will participate in an inauguration that will legitimate Rick Warren and his revolting views on homosexuality, among other things.
    What can we expect from the Obama administration? Well, the continuing murder of Iraqis under Gates (and already the signs are clear that we can expect no real withdrawal anytime soon), the intensification of the "good" war in Afghanistan, the continuing exploitation of the entire country for the benefit of the banks under Geithner's Treasury and Summers's advisory role, the commitment to Israel's apartheid state under Hillary Clinton's. etc., etc. The Obama administration is already nothing less than shameful, and anybody who claims the term liberal or progressive and thinks otherwise is, frankly, either ignorant or a fool. I think the moniker "imperialist" is here rather real than imagined, despite Rich Villar's claims to the contrary.

  17. December 19, 2008
     \"noah freed\"

    Jasper is right on; Hitchens has an article well worth reading on the Warren choice: http://www.slate.com/id/2207148/.

  18. December 19, 2008
     Rich Villar

    I'll make no further comment on here except to say:
    -It's a bit difficult to call an Obama Administration imperialist, non-progressive, or anything else, given that there is no Obama Administration as of yet.
    -You'll find no one more willing than me to call the U.S. out for what it does, but reading a poem at an inaugural ceremony...a historic one, despite the opinions of the more cynical among us...does not equate with sanctioning homophobia, war, or U.S. policy past or present.
    What I'm saying is, yes, we know poets should be ideological and all that jazz. But really fellas. Relax. I think one good poem for one huge audience will do nothing but good for the country.
    Lastly, I could be obtuse and ask Michael why he continues to be affiliated with the University of Chicago, the institution that gave Milton Friedman a platform and breathing space while successive imperialist governments (supported by the U.S. military) played havoc with the world using his economic theories. But that wouldn't be fair, now would it?

  19. December 19, 2008

    By OolosisS
    Rick Warren, I warrant
    Is a Glutton for God.
    The Obese, Obey!,
    I imagine they say,
    Makes us our millions
    And we will pay
    Unto God, what is God's
    And build this day,
    A mall for His Church
    So that weekly they'll say,
    Unto Caesar, what is Caesar’s!
    Tax exempt always!
    But come visit our stage
    Prior Election Day.
    (Whisper)…and please, take with you
    This word, "marriage" of ours
    From our Bible to halls
    Of Congressional white
    And with words of black
    On tablets like stone
    Place it within and define
    Rights of our own.
    But remember always,
    Well beyond here, today
    Separation of church
    And state on tax day.

  20. December 19, 2008

    Does your admonition against state functionaries apply to state university poetry professors? I don't see how they don't place their poetry in the service of the state, no matter how much resistance and critique their poetry fosters, enacts, describes, depicts, or embodies. And that applies to my own beloved state-university anarchist poetry professor! Whom I don't, personally, blame for taking the job; in fact, I'm grateful he did; but then, I don't find it sad that Alexander is reading at the inauguration. The choice of Warren to participate disgusts me too, but since when does participation mean 100% endorsement? Something I cherish about democracy: The right to disagree. Which, of course, applies to you too, Michael! You have every right to bemoan Alexander's participation.

  21. December 19, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    Rich, that's a completely different question: I would refer you to Chomsky's stock answer when asked, as he often is, whether he sees a contradiction in his dissident work's being subsidized by the CIA & Department of Defense (which have long maintained associations & contracts with MIT) -- but I'm no Chomsky, Chicago's no MIT, & the answer is pretty obvious.
    Anyway, yes, I agree that Alexander's reading will do no harm. I never said otherwise. To shift the topic away from my red diapers, have you guys seen Packer's somewhat obtuse post at the New Yorker blog? I don't disagree with his overall argument, but the details are rather devilish: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/georgepacker/2008/12/presidential-po.html.

  22. December 19, 2008

    Thanks for the link to the Packer piece. Very interesting -- calls to mind Kenneth Rexroth's long-ago complaint that contemporary American poetry (since Sandburg anyway, and with the exception of some of the Beats) lacked vocalic punch, that it was difficult to recite with vigor. Interestingly, this would apply to Frost as well; it's not a question of accessibility or prosody. In W. R. Johnson's terms, modernist poetry has by-and-large lacked a "choral lyric," which would be the type that an occasion of state would call for. Some of the Slammers write "choral lyric," but more often in the mode of "odi" rather than "amo" (to borrow from Catullus).
    As I consider it, it occurs to me that, interestingly, W. R. Johnson's "God's Trombones" -- themselves modeled on African American preaching -- could be declaimed. Angelou herself is in that oratorical tradition. But I agree with Packer; who could pull it off? (I don't think Angelou did.) I can't think of a poem from the Laureate's tradition that doesn't sound embarrassing -- or, perhaps, droll -- now. (Some of Jonson's masques praising the monarch -- am I hallucinating a mutually recognized tongue-in-cheekiness in Jonson comparing Elizabeth to a goddess? A recognition that, yes, that's his job, to compare the queen to a goddess; and yes, it's ridiculous, so we might as well have some fun with it. Can't imagine an American politician picking a poet who would flatter with a hint of cheekiness-via-hyperbole.)
    It will probably turn out that I will end up sharing your sorrow about the inaugural poem. For reasons of poetry, which are definitely related to reasons of politics. I don't know Alexander's work at all, so it's nothing against her -- I just can't imagine anybody pulling it off!
    p.s. Miller Williams dedicated one of his books to his daughter Cindy. Not the actress on "Laverne and Shirley"; his daughter later decided to go by "Lucinda."

  23. December 20, 2008
     Henry Gould

    I was saddened to learn that the Ace Toothpick Co. (of Giminy, Wisconsin) has been chosen as the Inaugural Toothpick Supplier for the upcoming event next month. I have always considered Ace Toothpick one of those companies which kept its "picks above the fray", so to speak - untainted by the dolorous weevils of Presidential or other politics, maintaining a strict policy of "Politics - No Picks" - which originated in the devotion of its founder, Scroggby D. Ace (1857-1912), to the Neo-Mugwump Party of northeastern Wisconsin, which Mr. Ace helped to organize in 1884-85, and which subsequently spread through many of the logging areas and toothpick manufacturers of the Middle West. How unfortunate to see this fine tradition of Hands-Off the Toothpick going, as we say in literary circles hereabouts, "the way of all fish".

  24. December 20, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    Thanks, John, for these thoughtful comments. In brief, I'm at best a very lukewarm defender of democracy (I'd have to see it in practice to make a final decision, but I can't seem to find it anywhere), in no small part because it means putting up with people like Warren. I don't see why hateful nonsense, whether of Warren's variety or the sort that demands that little girls wear headscarves to school, should be "tolerated" by thoughtful members of intricate social formations. Democratic principles assume no one should be shut out for their views, because there's no way to adjudicate with reasonable certainty among views in general. But that's simply untrue.