She speaks in the language of history; A poet finds the right words for an unprecedented inauguration
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 20 January 2009)

Elizabeth Alexander, the poet commissioned by Barack Obama to write a commemorative poem for his inauguration, lives a busy literary life within Black Studies, a special world of university writing and teaching. It's a highly politicized corner of literature, dedicated to improving black life. Like many in her field, Alexander plays the roles of artist, teacher and committed advocate.

Three historic eras provide much of the subject matter for Black Studies -- slavery, the post-slavery years of limited freedom and the civil-rights struggle. Themes grounded in race give Alexander's work an urgency that's often missing from more private poetry, but her mission also imposes an earnestness that may exclude nuance and burden her with a self-conscious sense of duty. Her way of thinking was shaped by the civil rights generation; she takes it for granted that she must open paths that the next generation, which includes her students, will follow.

Black Studies critics, busily generating their own categories and terms, write about "the new black aesthetic" and "the post-nationalist black arts movement." An admiring article in the African American Review described Alexander's poetry as "post-soul cosmopolitanism," meaning that her vision incorporates African-American traditions and an openness to international poetry.

The concerns of Black Studies constantly change. One of Alexander's poems asks "What is black culture?" That's a term she wants to expand. She thinks it has become too narrow, too often obsessed with political questions along the lines of "Is it black enough?" She seems to fear that she and other writers can be trapped in fantasies of authenticity. She sometimes complains that "African-American poetry has been read sociologically," but her own verse invites precisely that reading.

Those making their way through her four published collections may well be tempted to respond to content more than language even though she considers language the centre of her art.

She acknowledges that African-American history has been a great gift to her work, providing limitless stories and characters, but at the same time insists that her poems are not documentaries.

Still, anyone who writes an ambitious poem on the famous slave rebellion on the ship Amistad in 1839, as she did, will be judged partly on her loyalty to events, just like a documentary filmmaker. Nelson Mandela shows up in her poetry, as do Paul Robeson, Muhammad Ali and Rodney King. Her poems on artists such as Richard Pryor, Denzel Washington and Nat Cole borrow charisma from their subjects, but also demand the sort of journalistic data that a poet may find uncomfortable.

Alexander's life has led her directly to this historic morning, almost as if it was a question of destiny. She was a one-year-old in a stroller when her parents pushed her to the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963 so that they could all hear Martin Luther King give the great American speech of his generation. With his stirring "I have a dream" mantra, King generated an optimism of such power that it remained alive through even the worst disappointments and tragedies of the years that followed. King demonstrated language's power to nudge history. That was clear to Elizabeth's parents, and eventually to Elizabeth herself.

The speech became Alexander family lore, a way that parents and children could together imagine vast possibilities open to blacks. Alexander calls her forebears "race people" because their sense of identity was bound up with the struggle to improve the status of African-Americans, "bringing black people along with them." For this work she made language her own instrument of choice.

A considerable academic success at age 46, Alexander symbolizes the new class created in the wake of Lyndon Johnson's civil rights laws, an event closely connected to her family. Her father, Clifford L. Alexander Jr., now a business consultant, advised Johnson on civil rights (and later became secretary of the Army under Jimmy Carter). Her mother, Adele, teaches African-American women's history at George Washington University. Her brother, Mark, a law professor, campaigned for Obama and worked on his transition team.

Elizabeth, Harlem-born, once remarked, "Harlem is my Valhalla." In the 1920s, the Harlem Renaissance, involving everything from poets to ballet dancers, was the forerunner of Black Studies. Elizabeth visited Harlem often as a child and absorbed its legacy of black culture; her personal heroes include Thelonius Monk, John Coltrane and Duke Ellington. She grew up in Washington, and decided in adolescence to become a poet. She studied at the private Sidwell Friends School (where Obama's daughters are enrolled), Yale University, Boston University and the University of Pennsylvania, where she wrote her PhD dissertation on black American women poets.

She studied prose with John Hersey, poetry with Derek Walcott. After a brief spell as a Washington Post reporter, she became an academic, first at the University of Chicago (where Obama was teaching law) and since then at Yale, where she was recently appointed chair of her department, African American Studies.

The mother of two sons, she's satirized her present life as that of "an American Negro princess / married to an African prince ... living in a rat-free apartment in New Haven." (Her husband is an artist, Ficre Ghebreyesus.) As a poet, she draws on historic evidence, quasi-folkloric elements of black culture and the poets who have caught her imagination.

At times her work resembles a combination of W. H. Auden, Walt Whitman and blues lyrics. One delightful poem of hers, Stravinsky in L.A., shows an Auden-like devotion to precise data and a Whitman-like freedom of movement. She imagines that, as an immigrant composer, Igor Stravinsky tries to understand the essence of jazz and its syncopation. He examines the city of Los Angeles, the famous Watts Towers, the palm trees and omnipresent sprinkler systems, all in the hope that "One day I will comprehend these people ...."

She's as aware as anyone of Auden's famous comment that "poetry makes nothing happen." But, also like Auden, she knows poetry can help prepare us for what is to happen and perhaps clarify moral choices. Many will consider the inclusion of a poet no more than human decor for the inauguration, but Alexander clearly has something more ambitious in mind. She's said that poetry "moves us towards transformation."

On this historic day she has a chance rarely given to a poet: She can use her talent to help breathe fresh life into the ancient dream of progress.

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