Obama has been touted as among the most literary presidents in modern history, but his choice for an inaugural poet has some scratching their heads.
Acting more like a man of politics than a man of letters, Obama picked former Chicago neighbor and family chum Elizabeth Alexander to deliver an original inaugural poem next month. Alexander, 46, is an African-American studies professor at Yale. Her brother worked on Obama’s campaign and transition team, according to the New Yorker magazine.
Largely unknown outside academic circles, Alexander becomes only the fourth poet in U.S. history to read at a presidential inauguration. Bill Clinton had poet Maya Angelou read at his 1993 swearing in, and Miller Williams participated at his re-election fete in 1997. The only other poet for an inauguration was Robert Frost, who read his “The Gift Outright” for John F. Kennedy in 1961.
But Alexander is no Robert Frost, critics are quick to point out.
“Alexander writes with a fine, angry irony, in vividly concrete images, but her poems have the qualities of most contemporary American poetry — a specificity that’s personal and unsuggestive, with moves toward the general that are self-consciously academic. They are not poems that would read well before an audience of millions,” writes George Packer in the New Yorker.
Vividly concrete images indeed. Consider this segment from an Alexander poem titled “Neonatology.”
“a soggy, bloody crotch, is
“sharp jets of breast milk shot straight across the room,
“is gaudy, mustard-colored poop, is
“postpartum tears that soak the baby’s lovely head.
“Shockingly vital, mammoth giblet,
“the second living thing to break free
“of my body in fifteen minutes.
“The midwife presents it on a platter.
“We do not eat, have no Tupperware
“to take it home and sanctify a tree.”
Alexander, who has published four collections of poetry, including 2005’s Pulitzer-nominated “American Sublime,” will take the stage along with a host of other celebs, including Aretha Franklin, Itzhak Perlman, and Yo-Yo Ma. She says she’s thrilled at being picked for the inaugural gig.
Obama “is a man who understands that words bring power, who understands the power of language, the integrity of language, that it's not just idle,” Alexander told the Guardian in London. “To be asked to turn my own words to this occasion and for this person is all but overwhelming It's the balance between listening to the muse and speaking to many, many people."
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