Alexander: ‘A lot of people stop me in the street’

Jan. 20, the first day of the Obama presidency, marked the return of poetry to American life, Elizabeth Alexander ’84 said.

As Alexander, the inaugural poet and Yale professor, addressed an audience of about 90 people at an Ezra Stiles College Master’s Tea on Thursday afternoon, she reflected on the experience of reading her poem “Praise Song for the Day” at President Barack Obama’s inauguration. Speaking before the crowded room, Alexander expressed hopes for a literary presidency and shared stories from the ceremony.

Elizabeth Alexander ’84 discusses her experiences on the national stage.
Charles Francis
Elizabeth Alexander ’84 discusses her experiences on the national stage.

During the talk, Alexander noted that Obama’s inauguration provided her with the largest audience a poet has ever known. An estimated 2 million people were gathered on and around the Capitol lawn during her delivery, and tens of millions more watched from home.

Alexander, noting that poets are not used to such remarkable visibility, considered it a literary challenge.

“It has been interesting to be a public person as a poet in a new way,” said Alexander.

As the inauguration turned national attention to poetry, Alexander became an overnight celebrity.

“For what I hope is just a little while, a lot of people stop me in the street,” she said.

Though she expressed doubts about being a “public poet” — with pressure to please a certain audience — Alexander said she looks forward to Obama’s presidency as a time with “poetry in the White House.”

For Alexander, the inaugural commission posed poetic difficulties. While writing, she was conscious that she would be reading to people who were not used to hearing poetry. With that in mind, she strove for clarity but resisted simplicity.

“I’m not gonna do ‘Hickory, Dickory, Dock’ as my new best friend Stephen Colbert suggested,” she joked, in reference to her recent interview on The Colbert Report.

Challenging, too, was the question of how to read before so many faces. At the time she said she worried about a sudden attack of nerves or tears before the microphone. When she did stand up to speak, she recalled seeing many in the crowd leaving, after having heard Obama’s speech.

But among those leaving, she noticed that people stopped to listen, or as she put it, the poetry “literally arrested them.” Alexander attributes this phenomenon to the power of verse.

While Alexander emphasized the significance of the inauguration to American poets, she spoke feelingly about its meaning for blacks. Her voice broke with emotion when she recalled sitting on the Capitol steps with her father, Clifford Alexander Jr., who served as the first African-American secretary of the army and “fought for civil rights his whole life.”

The inaugural commission has already boosted Alexander’s career. Graywolf Press is releasing “Praise Song for the Day” in February; 100,000 copies are being printed. Alexander is one of Graywolf’s best sellers, but even with her past collections, the small publishing company usually sells only a few thousand copies.

Though students in the audience had seen Alexander on the national stage less than two weeks ago, four Yalies interviewed said they were struck by her casual demeanor.

“She seemed really humble about the experience,” Lucas Bermudez ’09 said.

While Christopher Perry-Coon ’11 said he was not familiar with Alexander before the inauguration, he valued her “interesting perspective on history.”

“It was kind of cool to see someone who isn’t so well known sharing their thoughts and their talents on such a momentous occasion,” he added.

After her talk, Alexander signed copies of “Praise Song for the Day,” a small number of which had been printed for the tea. Students waited in line for up to 45 minutes for the poet’s signature.

Alexander said she has been commissioned to write a poem honoring the 100th anniversary of the founding of the NAACP.

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