Poet Recalls Inauguration Reading as Moment of ‘Awe and Joy’

On a bright, cold day, standing before a sea of people that stretched to the horizon and witnessed by millions more watching on televisions around the world, Yale Professor Elizabeth Alexander stepped up to the microphone and presented a gift of words to newly inaugurated President Barack Obama on Jan. 20.

Alexander, professor of African American studies and English literature and a 1984 alumna of Yale College, had been invited to compose and present an original poem at the inauguration. She is only the fourth person in history to be so honored.

“Being there was extraordinary,” she says. “I was up on the platform hours ahead of the ceremony that morning with my 75-year-old father, Clifford Alexander [Yale Law School 1958]. He was wearing his button from the [1963] March on Washington. He has spent his life working for civil rights and social justice. Behind me sat Medgar Evers’ widow and Martin Luther King’s children. The Supreme Court was to my left. Muhammad Ali was across the aisle, and Elie Wiesel was just a few seats over. The entire Congress was right there.

“Being in that assemblage, hearing and seeing people all around me crying with joy: It was overpowering,” she adds.

Alexander has given poetry readings many times, but never one quite like this. “When the moment came to speak,” she recalls, “I found that because a crowd of millions is unfathomable, literally surreal, and there is no way to prepare for that kind of experience, all I had to concentrate on was doing my job. The hard part had been the writing. Reading it, I felt awe and joy to finally let the poem free.

“Friends had given me good advice: Remember to breathe and take your time.

I took a really, really, really deep breath and humbly attempted to live up to the moment,” she says.

An $8 keepsake edition of the poem, “Praise Song for the Day: A Poem for Barack Obama’s Presidential Inauguration,” is being published by Graywolf Press on Feb. 6.

A graduate of Yale College, Alexander was named the first recipient of the $50,000 Jackson Prize for Poetry in 2007. Her four books of poems are “The Venus Hottentot” (1990), “Body of Life” (1996), “Antebellum Dream Book” (2001) and “American Sublime,” which was one of three finalists for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize. “American Sublime” was selected as one of the 25 Notable Books of 2005 by the American Library Association. She is editor of “The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks” (American Poets Project) and co-editor of “Workings of the Spirit: The Poetics of Afro-American Women’s Writing.” Her verse play, “Diva Studies,” was produced at the Yale School of Drama in May 1996.

— By Gila Reinstein

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Gila Reinstein: gila.reinstein@yale.edu, 203-432-1325