Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Elizabeth Alexander on Barack Obama --- Poetry and Obama's Respect for the Power of Language

When Elizabeth Alexander reads her poem at next week's inauguration, the surreal and simple truth is that we are welcoming a President with a deep appreciation for the written word in its critical and creative forms. I am recalling his two published poems, in the now-defunct Feast in 1987, and his time leading the Harvard Law Review, much less his memoirs. I am also thinking of this morning's story on NPR online about Obama's effect on the publishing world and the story's photograph with Obama and his eldest daughter, who was holding a copy of her current reading, a book by Cynthia Kadohata. I am pleased for Graywolf Press (the home of Linda Gregg and Jane Jeong Trenka, among my favorite writers)---Graywolf will be publishing the chapbook of Alexander's poem. It will be available on February 10, 2009. A Spanish edition will follow.

In the new year, with all of the challenges ahead of us, I seek simple ways to direct my financial, social, and creative energies into the arts, the libraries, the reading series, and the small presses everywhere.

On her website, Elizabeth Alexander writes:

“Words matter. Language matters. We live in and express ourselves with language, and that is how we communicate and move through the world in community.

President-elect Obama has shown us at all turns his respect for the power of language. 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. My joy at being selected to compose and deliver a poem on the occasion of Obama’s Presidential inaugural emanates from my deep respect for him as a person of meaningful, powerful words that move us forward. And as his campaign was a movement much larger than the man himself, I understand that as a country we stand poised to make tremendous choices about our collective future. The distillation of language in poetry, its precision, can help us see sharply in the midst of many conundrums.

This is a powerful moment in our history. The joy I feel is sober and profound because so much struggle and sacrifice have brought us to this day. And there is so much work to be done ahead of us. Poetry is not meant to cheer; rather, poetry challenges, and moves us towards transformation. Language distilled and artfully arranged shifts our experience of the words – and the worldviews – we live in.

This is only the fourth time in our history that a President has featured a poet at his inaugural. I hope that this portends well for the future of the arts in our everyday and civic life.”

Elizabeth Alexander
December 2008

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