Arts & Culture

Presidential poet, back at work

Bob Handelman

Bob Handelman

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Nine days after delivering her newly crafted poem, "Praise Song for the Day," at the inauguration of President Barack Obama, Yale professor Elizabeth Alexander ’84 addressed a packed master's tea at Ezra Stiles College. It was a historically rich backdrop—including a portrait of eighteenth-century Yale president Ezra Stiles—for a black woman and chair of African American studies, particularly one whose poem for the inaugural referred to "the dead who brought us here,"

  • who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,
    picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
    brick by brick the glittering edifices
    they would then keep clean and work inside of.


The conversation, though, stayed on language rather than history. Audience members asked about Alexander's writing process, the poem's meter, the importance of reading it aloud. ("If I had to make a choice," Alexander said, "I would be a page poet and not a stage poet.") They also asked about the power of words. "When Obama had the audacity to speak well during the campaign," she replied, "he encountered suspicion: 'Just words, just words.' Well, we encounter each other across words."

Alexander, who met Obama in the early 1990s when they were both on the faculty of the University of Chicago, said she did not get a chance to talk to the president on his inauguration day, nor had she since. She said she hoped that chance will come, but understands if he has other things to attend to first: "I want him to fix things." 

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