(AFP) – Jan 18, 2009
WASHINGTON (AFP) — Moments after Barack Obama delivers his first address as the new US president on Tuesday, a slight, bespectacled woman will take his place at the podium and read the world a poem.
For a spellbinding pause in time, Elizabeth Alexander, 46, will step out of the shadows of the rarified world of contemporary poetry and before millions in Washington and abroad deliver a poem she is composing for the occasion.
It will only be the fourth time in US history that a poet has been asked to pen something for a presidential inauguration, and the extraordinary commission has set the poetry world abuzz.
Some see it as a dawning of a new era where poetry and culture will take its place within the corridors of power, after eight years of what many say has been a cultural wasteland in the White House.
"I think president-elect Obama's decision to have a poem read at his inauguration signals his openness to ideas and thinking that may not be a part of the political or intellectual mainstream in this country," Stephen Young, program director at the Poetry Foundation, told AFP.
Poetry "renews our attention to language and the powers of language," he said, adding "poetry can help us to understand new things or bring fresh understanding to things that we thought we knew already."
"Elizabeth Alexander has talked over and over about how poetry is a precise use of language, something that perhaps has been missing from our government in recent years."
Alexander, a teacher of African-American studies at Yale University whose most recent book "America Sublime" was a finalist for the Pultizer Prize, has acknowleged the challenge facing her.
"The poem has a job to do. It has to speak to a tremendous historical occasion," she said in a statement released by the transition team.
"And that work is speaking to an incredibly diverse audience not only of Americans but of people around the world who are looking to America on this day to begin to think about the way forward."
She will be following in the footsteps of some of America's most inspiring poets. Robert Frost wrote a poem for the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961, but when sunlight blinded him so he couldn't read his composition, he gave instead from memory a moving rectitation of his poem "The Gift Outright."
In 1993 Bill Clinton invited Maya Angelou to read at his inauguration, and then had fellow Arkansan Miller Williams recite after his reelection in 1997.
But it's not just Obama's invitation to Alexander which has ignited a fervor in the normally sedate arts world.
Just days after his November victory, Obama whose soaring speeches have been compared to poetry, was spotted carrying the collected works of West Indies poet and Nobel laureate Derek Walcott.
"The in-box went wild," Alexander said in a recent podcast.
"Poets absolutely couldn't believe that here with that gesture he was saying that a few days after being elected president (he could) find the time for contemplation that poetry provides, to read one of the great poets of one world poetry, that is to say not to have a strictly nationalist view of where important art is found," she added.
Obama has talked about having poetry readings in the White House, and many are hoping his fresh, modern perspective will boost the profile given to the arts.
The United States is one of the few Western countries which does not have a secretary of the arts, something which music producer Quincy Jones aims to change by begging Obama to create such a cabinet post.
"I have traveled all over the world all the time for 54 years. The people abroad know more about our culture than we do," Jones told the Washington Post on Wednesday.
"A month ago at my high school in Seattle, I asked a student if he knew who Louis Armstrong was. He said he had heard his name. I asked him about Duke Ellington and John Coltrane. He didn't even know their names. That hurts me a lot."
By Friday 122,439 people had signed an online petition triggered by Jones's plea to the incoming poet president.
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