Monday, January 19, 2009

Inauguration poetry

Inauguration day is almost upon us, and what an exciting ceremony it is bound to be, all of it. In particular, I've been reading with interest about Elizabeth Alexander, the poet chosen to write the inaugural poem for President Obama. 

She is an exciting choice for an inaugural poet. She's an embodiment of connections between multiple disciplines. Not only is she a poet, but also a playwright. She's a professor of African American Studies at Yale. She's written on education, poetry, identity, art. She's taught in many venues, from both high school and college. She knows how to connect the dots. That Mr. Obama chose her shows that he values poetry, that he knows how to connect the dots, too. He "does nuance."

Politics aside, I am thrilled that Obama is including a poet at his inauguration. Ms. Alexander will be only the fourth poet to participate in an inaugural ceremony, a fact that leaves me disappointed, but not surprised.

I'm going to stop here and say that this is the third draft of this post, the others all ending up in a vitriolic snit lamenting that that Americans don't generally read or enjoy poetry. That we have had only four inaugurations with a poet to mark the occasion is a sad thing. But someplace in the second version of this post, I decided that I'm not going to dwell on that (at least not today).

Today I'm going to celebrate that poetry is going to be present tomorrow at the ceremony. Of course, the day is about so very much more; but the presence of a poet says a great deal about the changes that are bound to come.

As way leads to way so often, I recently stumbled across a poem that speaks to the excitement ushered in with the inauguration of another President, in another time not so long ago.

I give you Linda Pastan's "Remembering Frost at Kennedy's Inauguration," from her book, Queen of a Rainy Country

Remembering Frost at Kennedy's Inauguration

Even the flags seemed frozen
to their poles, and the men
stamping their well-shod feet
resembled an army of overcoats.

But we were young and fueled 
by hope, our ardor burned away
the cold. We were the president's,
and briefly the president would be ours.

The old poet stumbled
over his own indelible words,
his breath a wreath around his face:
a kind of prophecy.

--Linda Pastan

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The Storialist said...

So wonderful, and rather fitting! It's sometimes hard to convince non-bookworms that poetry is relevant to life around us--this kind of poem is proof!

Hilary said...

Great post, Kirie! I cannot wait for tomorrow, I'm so excited. I'ts history I get to witness, and I'll be watching for the poetry, both heard and observed. I have to work tomorrow, and I'm just not sure how I'm going to get thru it without finding my way to my television to watch it. Such an historic day.

angela said...

Hi Kirie

You never cease to amaze me with all the things you know and do. Who are the other two poets and who are the other presidents?
How did you find out about Elizabeth Alexander? And about her participation in this inauguaration? Glad you are there to keep me in the loop.

Love, Mom

Irene Latham said...

I just wrote an article for a local newspaper called "Because Life is Poetry (and Poetry is Life)." Or was it the other way around?? Whatever. :) People just don't know what they are missing, do they??

Kirie said...

Storialist: I'm with you on convincing others about the relevance of poetry. I do think there is a change afoot--what an exciting time!

Kirie said...

Hilary--tomorrow is here, and it is so exciting, isn't it? I love that you're on the lookout for poetry. This inaugural speech is going to be "more poetry than prose" as several pundits are pointing out. Fantastic!

Kirie said...

Mom, thank you for being my biggest fan. I know about Ms. Alexander through a few articles I read in December. The other poets I know because I remember them from the inaugurations (except Frost, of course!)
Maya Angelou was the poet who wrote for Clinton's first inauguration. Her poem is "On the Pulse of Morning." I ran out and bought the little book version as soon as I heard it.
Clinton's second inaugural poet was Miller Williams, and his poem was "Of History and Hope." I really liked this one, too, but I didn't buy a copy--it was short and not made into a book, as far as I know.
Robert Frost was the first inaugural poet, from what I understand. He wrote one poem specifically for the event, "Dedication." But he couldn't read the poem because of eyesight and glare, and so he recited from memory another older poem of his, "The Gift Outright," which he had written about 20 years before. I think all things happen for a reason, and "The Gift Outright" is actually a much better poem, if you ask me.

Honestly, I didn't realize that there had been only four poets until this inauguration. I took it for granted that Clinton was just following tradition, and I figured Bush was just breaking tradition. I had it reversed, I guess.

I'm glad you like reading these. Me too.

Kirie said...

Oh Irene! What a great thing you did in writing that article! Would it be possible for you to send me a link or a copy when it is published? I would love to have that.

Thank you so much, my dear poet friend.

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