Presidential Race Maps Writing on the Wall

Celebrating Elizabeth Alexander, Inaugural Poet

Posted Jan 13, 2009 at 3:03 PM
University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, Michigan

Celebrating Elizabeth Alexander: Above is a video of the poet and cultural critic Elizabeth Alexander reading "Ars Poetica #101: I Believe," from her recent collection, American Sublime, a finalist for the Pulitizer Prize. Alexander is only the fourth poet in the history of the United States to be invited (by President-Elect Obama) to deliver a poem at an inauguration. Below is an excerpt from the University of Michigan Press website, which has just uploaded a fine celebration (and introduction for readers not familiar with her work) of Alexander. The webpage also includes a tribute to the poet from our own political director, Maurice Berger.

INAUGURATION 2009

Turn away from nothing. Face the sun.
Evolve at any cost.
From 10. Unfinished Tribute to Gwendolyn Brooks, Power & Possibility

Acclaimed poet and University of Michigan Press author Elizabeth Alexander will on January 20th become one of just four poets in the history of this country to have their poems included in a presidential inauguration. She will read a new poem at the ceremony swearing in President-elect Barack Obama, and we here at the UM Press could not be more proud. Congratulations, Professor! 

About Elizabeth Alexander

Elizabeth Alexander was born in Harlem, New York City, and grew up in Washington, DC. She received a B.A. from Yale University, an M.A. from Boston University (where she studied with acclaimed West Indies poet Derek Walcott), and the Ph.D. in English from the University of Pennsylvania. Alexander has read her poetry and lectured on African-American literature and culture across the country and abroad.

She has published four books of poems, The Venus Hottentot (1990), Body of Life (1996), Antebellum Dream Book (2001) and, most recently, American Sublime (2005), which was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. American Sublime was chosen to be one of the 25 Notable Books of 2005 by the American Library Association, which called it "sparkling with humanity and unexpected grace." Her collection of essays, The Black Interior, was published in 2004.


In 2006, she contributed a poem and an introduction to Gathering Ground, the University of Michigan Press compilation of 10 years of work from the acclaimed Cave Canem Foundation for African-American poets, where she serves as a faculty member. In 2007, UM Press published Power & Possibility as part of its Poets on Poetry series. The book is Alexander's collection of her essays, reviews and interviews that study and comment on American literature and culture.

Her short stories and critical prose have been widely published in such periodicals and journals as Signs, The Paris Review, American Poetry Review, The Kenyon Review, The Village Voice, The Women's Review of Books, and The Washington Post. Her poems are anthologized in dozens of collections.

Her awards include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, two Pushcart Prizes, the Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching at the University of Chicago, the George Kent Award, given by Gwendolyn Brooks, and a Guggenheim fellowship. In 2007 Alexander won the first annual $50,000 Jackson Prize for Poetry, which honors an American poet of exceptional talent who has published at least one book of recognized literary merit. She is an inaugural recipient of the Alphonse Fletcher, Sr. Fellowship for work that "contributes to improving race relations in American society and furthers the broad social goals of the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954."

Alexander's play, "Diva Studies," was produced at the Yale School of Drama in May 1996, and she was a dramaturge for Anna Deavere Smith's play "Twilight" in its original production at the Mark Taper Forum.

She has taught at Haverford College, the University of Chicago, New York University, and Smith College, where she was Grace Hazard Conkling Poet-in-Residence and first director of the Poetry Center at Smith College. She spent a year as a fellow of the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University. She is presently Professor of African-American Studies and English Literature at Yale University.

Prof. Alexander herself had this to say:

"I'm completely thrilled to have been chosen for this honor," she said in a Yale University interview. "Barack Obama is a man who understands the power and integrity of language. To be asked to turn my own words to this occasion and for this person is all but overwhelming."

"President-elect Obama has put poetry front and center, only the fourth time that this has happened at an inauguration," she told the Wall Street Journal. "It says culture matters, that it's transforming and not merely stirring, that it's fundamental to ways in which we can think about moving forward...

"Poetry, because it is language distilled and because it is also such intensely precise language, provides us with a moment of respite and meditation, moments where we have to stop and listen very carefully to every word."

What others have to say about Elizabeth Alexander:

"President-Elect Obama has made a wise choice in Elizabeth Alexander, a poet of exceptional eloquence, depth, and grace. In the tradition of James Baldwin, Susan Sontag, and Toni Morrison, she is equally adept as literary writer, social observer, and cultural critic. Her inaugural poem will no doubt inspire our nation in this troubled and extraordinary time."
—Maurice Berger, Senior Research Scholar, Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture, University of Maryland Baltimore County

"Elizabeth Alexander's verse sings the plight and the power of those who struggle to survive. The smallest details of daily life, the resounding echoes of epochs, find their voices in her work. Alexander has woken us to a dream of deliverance that we share with language and music..."
—Homi K. Bhabha, Harvard University

"Elizabeth Alexander is one of the brightest stars in our literary sky, a poet of poise and power. Her sharp intelligence and her knowledge of the contemporary arts make her a superb, invaluable commentator on the American scene...With her considerable poetic skills and her complex vision of American history and culture, Elizabeth Alexander is an inspired choice to play such a prominent role in the presidential inauguration."
—Arnold Rampersad, Stanford University