Engraving the Inaugural in Words

Monday, January 19, 2009

Elizabeth Alexander is the latest in a long line of commemorative poets that includes Homer and Virgil and W.H. Auden, but will be only the fourth poet to read at a presidential inauguration when she honors Barack Obama on Tuesday.

Robert Frost couldn’t read the playful “Dedication” he had composed for John F. Kennedy’s 1960 inauguration because of sun glare and high winds, and instead spoke these powerful lines from memory:

In 1993, at the first inauguration of Bill Clinton, Maya Angelou also personified the land:

Ms. Alexander has said that “Writing an occasional poem has to attend to the moment itself, but what you hope for, as an artist, is to create something that has integrity and life that goes beyond the moment.” Here she is reading at Boston University:

Of the Trojan hero Aeneas, the Roman poet Virgil famously wrote “Of arms and the man I sing.” On Tuesday, it will be Elizabeth Alexander’s task to frame Barack Obama for posterity—to make him history, just at the moment that he becomes our future.


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