By Martine Powers
NEW HAVEN, 10:00 p.m. — Elizabeth Alexander ’84, Obama’s inaugural poet, is an expert on poet Gwendolyn Brooks. Brooks, whose career spanned from the 1940s until her death in 2000, was the lionized black poetess of South Side Chicago. In 2005, Alexander edited The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks, an anthology of Brooks’ most pivotal work, and said about Brooks: “She wrote truly great poems whose technical achievements are still guiding many poets. … She wrote poems about people she loved who lived in a place she loved and knew.”
Now, Alexander has returned to Brooks to find inspiration for Tuesday’s inaugural poem. When she spoke to the News on Sunday, Alexander said her poem will channel Brooks’ “understanding of what it means to speak to a community.” Alexander said three Brooks poems have influenced her in particular:
The Second Sermon on the Warpland
For Walter Bradford
This is the urgency: Live!
and have your blooming in the noise of the whirlwind.
Salve salvage in the spin.
Endorse the splendor splashes;
stylize the flawed utility;
prop a malign or failing light—
but know the whirlwind is our commonwealth.
Not the easy man, who rides above them all,
not the jumbo brigand,
not the pet bird of poets, that sweetest sonnet,
shall straddle the whirlwind.
All about are the cold places,
all about are the pushmen and jeopardy, theft—
all about are the stormers and scramblers but
what must our Season be, which starts from Fear?
Live and go out.
medicate the whirlwind.
cracks into furious flower. Lifts its face
all unashamed. And sways in wicked grace.
Whose half-black hands assemble oranges
is tom-tom hearted
(goes in bearing oranges and boom).
And there are bells for orphans—
and red and shriek and sheen.
A garbageman is dignified
as any diplomat.
Big Bessie’s feet hurt like nobody’s business,
but she stands—bigly—under the unruly scrutiny, stands
in the wild weed.
In the wild weed
she is a citizen,
and is a moment of highest quality; admirable.
It is lonesome, yes. For we are the last of the loud.
Conduct your blooming in the noise and whip of the whirlwind.
we all heard it,
cool and clear,
cutting across the hot grit of the day.
The major Voice.
The adult Voice
forgoing Rolling River,
forgoing tearful tale of bale and barge
and other symptoms of an old despond.
Warning, in music-words
devout and large,
that we are each other’s
we are each other’s
we are each other’s
magnitude and bond.
XV by Gwendolyn Brooks
Men of careful turns, hater of forks in the road,
The strain at the eye, that puzzlement, that awe —
Grant me that I am human, that I hurt,
That I can cry.
Not that I now ask alms, in shame gone hollow,
Nor cringe outside the loud and sumptuous gate.
Admit me to our mutual estate.
Open my rooms, let in the light and air.
Reserve my service at the human feast.
And let the joy continue. Do not hoard silence
For the moment when I enter, tardily,
To enjoy my height among you. And to love you
No more as a woman loves a drunken mate,
Restraining full caress and good My Dear,
Even pity for the heaviness and the need—
Fear sudden fire out of the uncaring mouth,
Boiling in the slack eyes, and the traditional blow.
Next, the indifference formal, deep and slow.
Comes in your graceful glider and benign,
To smile upon me bigly; now desires
Me easy, easy; claims the days are softer
Than they were; murmurs reflectively, “Remember
When cruelty, metal, public, uncomplex,
Trampled you obviously and every hour…”
(Now cruelty flaunts diplomas, is elite,
Deliberate, has polish, knows how to be discreet):
Requests my patience, wills me to be calm,
Brings me a chair, but the one with broken straw,
Whispers, ‘My friend, no thing is without flaw.
If prejudice is native — and it is — you
Will find it ineradicable — not to
Be juggled, not to be altered at all,
But left unvexed at its place in the properness
Of things, even to be given (with grudging) honor.
We are to hope is that intelligence
Can sugar up our prejudice with politeness.
Politeness will take care of what needs caring.
For the line is there.
And has a meaning. So our fathers said —
And they were wise — we think — At any rate,
They were older than ourselves. And the report is
What’s old is wise. At any rate, the line is
Long and electric. Lean beyond and nod.
Be sprightly. Wave. Extend your hand and teeth.
But never forget it stretches there beneath.”
The toys are all grotesque
And not for lovely hands; are dangerous,
Serrate in open and artful places. Rise.
Let us combine. There are no magics or elves
Or timely godmothers to guide us. We are lost, must
Wizard a track through our own screaming weed.