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Friday, December 26, 2008

The Intersection of Poetry and Politics

Frost was the first poet to read at a presidential inauguration, and there have been only two others in the almost five decades since: Maya Angelou, at Bill Clinton’s first inauguration in 1993, and Miller Williams, at Mr. Clinton’s second, in 1997. (Some would include, with an asterisk, James Dickey, who composed a poem that he read at Jimmy Carter’s inaugural gala but not at the inauguration itself.) Now America is about to meet its fourth inaugural poet, a 46-year-old Yale professor named Elizabeth Alexander.

“To have great poetry there must be great audiences, too,” Walt Whitman said. He was talking about the quality of a poet’s readers. But there is little doubt, given the intense global interest in President-elect Barack Obama, that Ms. Alexander’s verse will be broadcast to more people at one time than any poem ever composed. This may not be American poetry’s Academy Award moment. But it is, for Ms. Alexander, an outsize platform.

What the world will hear at Mr. Obama’s inauguration is the work of a woman whose verse makes a sharply different kind of music from that of any of the inaugural poets who have preceded her. The principal obsessions in her four books of verse — race and history, love and family — are played out in poems that can buzz with an electric and angular ellipticity, as in “Emancipation,” printed here in its entirety:

Corncob constellation,
oyster shell, drawstring pouch, dry bones.
Gris gris in the rafters.
Hoodoo in the sleeping nook.
Mojo in Linda Brent’s crawlspace.
Nineteenth century corncob cosmogram
set on the dirt floor, beneath the slant roof,
left intact the afternoon
that someone came and told those slaves
“We’re free.”


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