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How to Write Poetry for History

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Only three presidents have commissioned a poem for their inauguration ceremonies: John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton (who had two), and Barack Obama. For his first swearing-in, Obama called on Elizabeth Alexander, a poet and professor at Yale University. This time, he picked Richard Blanco. Alexander chatted with National Journal about her experience, her advice for Blanco, and the role of the inaugural poet. Edited excerpts follow.

NJ Obama’s first inauguration was a historic day. How did you feel when you were asked to compose the poem in 2009?

Alexander Overwhelmed, excited, and anxious. But also purposeful, because on you go, right? More than anything, I was thrilled that there was going to be poetry. I think that now the president has asked a second poet, we can almost feel like we can take for granted that there will be poetry at inaugurals. But presidents don’t have to do that, and thus don’t have to say that art is important on civic occasions.

NJ You were only the fourth poet in history to do this. Did you look back at the earlier poems, and did you learn anything from them?

Alexander Certainly. I simply couldn’t have not looked back at those poems. But I also looked at other occasional poems; I looked at other poems that thought about “the polis.” I looked at poems with some grandeur, and I also spent a lot of time among Walt Whitman’s work, thinking about poems that tried to take in the idea of America.

NJ Is that part of what you wanted to express in your poem “Praise Song for the Day”—the idea of America?

Alexander For me, the process of writing poems doesn’t come idea first. It comes language first. So what I was trying to do was listen for language and phrases and words, and see what ideas that language contained. That’s how my process goes.

NJ Your poem seems to echo themes from the president’s 2008 campaign. You write about the labor of the people who have gone before us, about people sitting around kitchen tables. Did you think about Obama’s personality and message while you were writing?

Alexander That was in there. Perhaps even more, the way that he ran the campaign and the idea that so many millions of people made this happen. And that was something he constantly talked about. He would often say, “This is not about me.” So the idea that one president gets to where he or she is because of the ways many, many people work, in ways large and small—that was inescapable.

NJ The mood of the country has changed since then. Is that something that this year’s poet, Richard Blanco, should take into account?

Alexander First of all, he should write the poem that he’s going to write, and I can’t wait to hear what that will be, because he’s a beautiful poet. But I think that inaugurals are an opportunity for us to stop and catch our breath. We’ve come out of a bruising election process, and it’s now a moment to say, “Where do we go from here? And who are we?” In this fascinating country, that question—who are we?—is eternally rich. How do we work together? What do we, in common, hold dear? I think that that’s really the inaugural moment for everyone, and that’s why we pause.

NJ What does a poem add to the ceremony?

Alexander It says, quite explicitly, that there are some things that artistic language can do—and is allowed to do—that political rhetoric cannot. Art is meant to arrest the moment. Art is meant to invite contemplation. Art is not necessarily meant to comfort us, but it is meant to still us and give us a chance to think.

NJ What was the most surprising thing about your experience?

Alexander What was amazing about the reception afterwards is that I heard from—and continue to hear from—people all over the country, all over the world, who not only connected with that poem but connected with poetry, even if they don’t consider themselves to be poetry aficionados. Most people are pleased for the occasion to take in a poem. And most people find in poetry something that gives them pleasure, or succor, or pause, or allows them to tilt their heads and see the world a little bit differently. And that’s really a great thing, and why it is a privilege to practice this art form.

NJ Did you get any feedback from the president about your poem?

Alexander I wouldn’t say anything about that! (Laughs.)

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