Poetry to the People
Elizabeth Alexander sees hope in a president who reads poetry| From Commonwealth | By Cynthia K. Buccini
Listen to Elizabeth Alexander (GRS'87) read “Praise Song for the Day."
When Elizabeth Alexander stepped up to the podium at the U.S. Capitol on January 20 and read “Praise Song for the Day,” the poem she composed for Barack Obama’s inauguration, she became only the fourth poet to read at a presidential swearing-in ceremony.
The experience, says Alexander (GRS’87), a Yale University professor of African-American studies and a prizewinning poet, was joyous. “It was a privilege,” she says.
Alexander, who earned a master’s in creative writing at BU, has published several books of poetry, including American Sublime, a 2006 Pulitzer Prize finalist. She has won the 2007 Jackson Prize for Poetry and two Pushcart Prizes.
She learned of her latest honor on December 17, when she received a phone call from the Presidential Inaugural Committee. She began working on her inaugural poem immediately. “I carefully studied the previous inaugural poems,” she says. “I read many poets — W. H. Auden, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, and Walt Whitman — who I felt had addressed historical moments with a kind of gravitas and with powerful language that resonated beyond the moment.”
Alexander says she begins writing a poem not with an idea, but with language “arranged in fresh and surprising and powerful ways. When you come across those fragments, around you and in your subconscious, that’s what makes me want to make a poem.”
She is delighted that our new president has an interest in poetry. “Three days after the election, he was photographed carrying the collected poems of my beloved teacher and one of the great poets of the world,” she says, referring to Derek Walcott, a Nobel Prize–winning poet and playwright and a retired College of Arts & Sciences professor of creative writing. “I mean, it doesn’t get much better than that.”