The poet at the Inaugural
Barack Obama has made an important decision to usher in his presidency with poetry. Elizabeth Alexander, a poet and professor at Yale University, on Tuesday will become only the fourth poet to read at an inauguration of the President of the United States.
America has had an estranged relationship with poetry. Unlike other nations, we often fail to invite our poets to the national stage. Ms. Alexander, whose poems are not widely known, captures a unique portrait of American and world history as seen through a singular lens; however, it is her universality of experience that signifies Ms. Alexander's message. It is apt poetry to bridge the connections between people of color and all human beings and to usher in this new administration.
One of the poet's great literary influences, Gwendolyn Brooks, once explained that she did not consider herself an African-American poet, but simply a poet. Ms. Brooks, who died in 2000, could not possibly have predicted that her belief on the universality of people of color would place on the national stage both a poet and a President born of her own literary and racial heritage just eight years later.
The metaphors or conceits that Ms. Alexander commandeers for this occasion will come to symbolize the imagery of Mr. Obama's era. For John F. Kennedy's Presidency, it was a poem by Robert Frost - "The Gift Outright," which celebrated our national love and longing for the land. For the Clinton years, it was Maya Angelou's "On The Pulse of the Morning," a peon to the long, multi-colored rope of humanity.
Ms. Alexander's task in light of her poetic legacy is to "speak clearly but artfully" in honor of this new President who so evidently cherishes language and words. "Poetry, I tell my students, is idiosyncratic," Ms. Alexander writes. "Poetry is where we are ourselves."
Political speech has clouded our understanding of language over the last eight years. Poetry by its nature cleanses the palate of the mind, speaking directly about unspeakable subjects. For example, her poem, "The Venus Hottentot 1825," is about the African queen invited to England whose genitalia were displayed in glass jars after her death. "Neonatology" details the postpartum effluence of baby, placenta, and bloody afterbirth. This poet writes of the viscera of humanity.
From enslavement to emancipation to marching in Birmingham, Ms. Alexander stresses the movements that alter history. Jail time, northern migration, beaches, autumn vegetables, and hidden slaves in the barn are all the subject of her blistering poems.
When a country is heartened by hope, it sings an authentic song. Great eras demand great verse. Our public poetry in 2009 elevates us as a nation. Diminished without art, poetry demands precision from a nation, perhaps even maturity. But most important of all, the poet at the inauguration requires that we stop as a country for one crucial moment and listen well.
Hail to the chief: Island inauguration events
This coming Tuesday, Jan. 20, President-elect Barack Obama will be inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States. The event will be shown on large screens at several Island venues, and two Inaugural Balls are planned later in the evening.
At 11 am at Balance Restaurant in Oak Bluffs, join the Oak Bluffs Association's (OBA) luncheon. Both Chilmark and Vineyard Haven library's viewing parties start at 11:30 am.
From 6 to 10 pm, the Oak BluffsA. hosts a Gala Inaugural Potluck Ball in the space above Balance Restaurant. There will be music by Mike Benjamin and Phil daRosa and a cash bar. Bring a dish for six people that does not need to be cooked.
The Martha's Vineyard Inaugural Committee's ball at the Chilmark Community Center was sold out as of press time.
For more information, see the listings in the Directory of Information.
Peg Regan of Oak Bluffs was principal of Martha's Vineyard Regional High School from 1999 to 2008.