Poet Elizabeth Alexander, Bridging a Nation's Past, Present and Future

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 21, 2009

"God bless the United States of America," Barack Obama said, and then -- after perhaps the most watched, most anticipated inaugural address in American history -- it was Elizabeth Alexander's turn.

Talk about your tough acts to follow.

The poet looked down the packed Mall where in 1963, though she was too young to remember, she'd heard Martin Luther King Jr. speak of his dream.

In a strong, steady voice, she began to read:

Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each other's eyes -- or not . . .

She read a prose poem, straightforward, low-key, with no flashy rhythms or rhyme. She spoke of the daily lives of Americans, past and present.

A woman and her son wait for the bus. A farmer considers the changing sky. A teacher says, "Take out your pencils. Begin."

Alexander is a distinguished American poet, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a Yale professor, an Obama friend. Who better to take up the task of capturing the uncapturable in words?

"It is a very very difficult thing she was asked to do," said former poet laureate Robert Pinsky, and she did it with "dignity and imagination."

Only three other poets have read at presidential inaugurations: Maya Angelou and Miller Williams, who read at Bill Clinton's two, and Robert Frost, who read at John F. Kennedy's. The services of American poet laureates, oddly enough, are not required on such occasions. (If they were required, poets might not accept the job.)

Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce . . .

The idea of work -- the work done to build the United States; the work needed to restore it now -- was, as Pinsky noted, a thread linking Alexander's poem to Obama's speech.

"I think a lot of us all around the country are thinking about the same thing," Pinsky said.

Poet Frank Bidart, who wrote his own inaugural poem for the online magazine Slate, praised Alexander's decision, on an occasion filled with pomp and circumstance, to emphasize "the most daily and mundane affairs."

It reminded him of the work of William Carlos Williams, Bidart said, and he thought it a "gutsy and courageous thing to do."

Other threads in Alexander's poem were the connections language can forge and the power of a single four-letter word:

What if the mightiest word is "love" -- love beyond marital, filial, national; love that casts a widening pool of light . . .

This last thread, in particular, impressed former poet laureate Billy Collins. "That kind of poem requires a kind of loftiness," Collins said. "She achieved that without pretense."

In the end, Alexander merged her words theme with the hopeful new start an inauguration represents.

"Anything can be made, any sentence begun," the poet said.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company