- The Washington Times - Monday, January 19, 2009

Elizabeth Alexander is a poet, not a politician, but there’s a symmetry between her selection as inaugural poet and that of the president-elect’s choices for his inner circle of advisers.

They all come with impressive academic credentials and are more centrist than many expected.

Stephen Young, program director for the Poetry Foundation in Chicago, called her selection inspired.

“I think it’s a great choice. She’s a wonderful poet who has a deep understanding of history and the civil rights movement in this country,” said Mr. Young. “There are a lot of African-American poets writing out of victimhood, and her understanding is much broader than that.”

It’s hard to imagine, for example, Mrs. Alexander following the example of poet Maya Angelou, who took identity politics to new heights in her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at the first presidential inauguration of Bill Clinton:

So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew,

The African, the Native American, the Sioux,

The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek,

The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheikh,

The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,

The Privileged, the Homeless, the Teacher.

Mrs. Alexander’s latest collection, “American Sublime,” a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, was described as “sparkling with humanity and unexpected grace” by the American Library Association. Her poem “Emancipation” from that collection shows her to be more interested in the power of images than proclamations:

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 slanted roof,

left intact the afternoon

that someone came and told those slaves

“We’re free.”

Mrs. Alexander, 46, studied at Yale University, Boston University and the University of Pennsylvania, where she received her doctorate in English. She teaches at the Department of African American Studies at Yale, although she spent the past year as a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.

Married with two sons, Simon, 10, and Solomon, 9, she has ties to both the early civil rights movement and the Obama family. She was 1 year old when her parents took her in a stroller April 28, 1963, to see Martin Luther King deliver his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech on the Mall.

She grew up among the District’s intelligentsia. Both her parents were Ivy League graduates, and she attended Sidwell Friends School, the same private school where the young Obama girls have enrolled.

Her father, Clifford Alexander, served as presidential civil rights adviser to President Johnson in the 1960s and as secretary of the Army in the Carter administration. Mr. Alexander, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor of the District in 1974, now sits on the board of governors of the American Stock Exchange.

Mrs. Alexander‘s mother, Adele Logan Alexander, is an author of two history books and a professor of African-American women’s history at George Washington University.

Elizabeth Alexander can trace her Obama connection to the 1990s. She and Mr. Obama taught at the University of Chicago and lived in the same neighborhood. Her brother, Mark, worked on the Obama presidential campaign and the transition team.

Her appearance will mark the fourth time a poet has spoken at the presidential inaugural. The first, Robert Frost, famously recited his poem, “Gift Outright,” from memory at the 1961 inauguration of John F. Kennedy after the blinding sun and high winds rendered him unable to read the poem he had prepared.

It would be another 42 years before another poet would be invited to the inaugural. Mr. Clinton exhumed the practice with Mrs. Angelou in 1993 and Miller Williams, an Arkansas-based poet, at the 1997 inauguration.

Mrs. Alexander praised the president-elect for deciding to showcase poetry at his inauguration, noting that Mr. Obama, who contributed poems to his college publication, is known for his way with words.

“The care with which he has always used language, along with his evident understanding that language and words bear power and tell us who we are across differences, have been hallmarks of his political career,” said Mrs. Alexander.

“I hope that this portends well for the future of the arts in our everyday and civic life,” she said.

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