Tuesday

Jan. 20, 2009

Ars Poetica #100: I Believe

by Elizabeth Alexander

Poetry, I tell my students,
is idiosyncratic. Poetry
is where we are ourselves,
(though Sterling Brown said
"Every 'I' is a dramatic 'I'")
digging in the clam flats
for the shell that snaps,
emptying the proverbial pocketbook.
Poetry is what you find
in the dirt in the corner,
overhear on the bus, God
in the details, the only way
to get from here to there.
Poetry (and now my voice is rising)
is not all love, love, love
and I'm sorry the dog died.
Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)
is the human voice,
and are we not of interest to each other?

"Ars Poetica #100: I Believe" by Elizabeth Alexander, from American Sublime. © Graywolf Press, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is Inauguration Day. The Constitution mandates that each new president take the following oath of office:

I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. George Washington also started a tradition of adding the line "so help me God."

Until 1937, Inauguration Day was March 4th. But it was changed in 1937 by the 20th Amendment, because there was no reason to have that much time between November elections and the inauguration.

The shortest inaugural address was the first one, delivered by George Washington. It was 135 words long. The longest inaugural address was by William Henry Harrison — it was 8,495 words.

There have been three poets who have recited at inaugurations. Maya Angelou read at Bill Clinton's first inauguration, Miller Williams at his second. In 1961, Robert Frost appeared at John F. Kennedy's inauguration. Frost wrote a poem specifically for the occasion, called "Dedication." It began:

Summoning artists to participate
In the august occasions of the state
Seems something artists ought to celebrate.
Today is for my cause a day of days.
And his be poetry's old-fashioned praise
Who was the first to think of such a thing.

And it ended:
A golden age of poetry and power
Of which this noonday's the beginning hour.

But because the January morning was so bright, and the glare on his faint typewritten paper was so intense, the 86-year-old Frost had a hard time reading the poem he had composed. So he recited one of his poems that he knew by heart, "The Gift Outright." It was a great moment for poetry.

About a month ago, Barack Obama announced his inaugural poet: Elizabeth Alexander, a professor at Yale. Obama knows Alexander from the days when they both taught at the University of Chicago. And Alexander has been working on her inaugural poem ever since.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

 









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