Elizabeth Alexander to Revive the Role of Inaugural Poet

12.18.08

Poet Elizabeth Alexander has been selected to read an original poem at the inauguration of president elect Barack Obama, making her only the fourth inaugural poet in U.S. history. Alexander will join musicians Aretha Franklin, Yo-Yo Ma, and Itzhak Perlman in bringing the arts to the January 20 celebration.

Alexander joins a brief list of predecessors, including Robert Frost, who read at the swearing-in of John F. Kennedy, and Maya Angelou and Miller Williams, who helped celebrate the commencement of William Jefferson Clinton's two presidential terms.

"Elizabeth Alexander has established herself as an important voice for a new generation," said Fiona McCrae, publisher of Graywolf Press, which will publish the inaugural poem in a chapbook. "She is a citizen poet—passionate, deeply engaged, with an expansive, inclusive sensibility." McCrae said that the return of poetry to the inaugural stage, and the selection of Alexander as its emissary, is "a brilliant and absolutely right choice" for "a president who is a lifelong reader and a thoughtful writer himself."

Alexander, whose father, former secretary of the army Clifford Alexander, advised Obama during his campaign, was raised in Washington, D.C., and is now a professor of African American Studies at Yale. Among Alexander's honors are the 2007 Jackson Poetry Prize, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, and two Pushcart Prizes. The most recent of her four collections of poetry, American Sublime (Graywolf Press, 2005) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

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Other Inaugural Poets

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.