Elizabeth Alexander, a poet, essayist, playwright and a proffessor of African-American studies at Yale University, was chosen by President-elect Barack Obama to compose and read a poem for his inauguration on Jan. 20.
Born in New York City and raised in Washington, DC. Alexander has degrees from Yale University and Boston University and completed her Ph.D. in English at the University of Pennsylvania. She has published five books of poems: The Venus Hottentot (1990), Body of Life (1996), Antebellum Dream Book (2001), American Sublime (2005), which was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize and was one of the American Library Association’s “Notable Books of the Year;” and, most recently, her first young adult collection (co-authored with Marilyn Nelson), Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color (2008 Connecticut Book Award). Her two collections of essays are The Black Interior (2004) and Power and Possibility (2007), and her play, “Diva Studies,” was produced at the Yale School of Drama.
The tradition that a president-elect should choose a poet for his inauguration goes back to JFK and Robert Frost
. Frost stole the heart of a nation with his performance on an icy January afternoon in 1961, reciting his poem “The Gift Outright” from memory when he found he could not read the faint typescript of the poem he’d written for the occasion.
Frost was the first poet to read at a presidential inauguration, and there have been only two others in the almost five decades since: Maya Angelou, at Bill Clinton’s first inauguration in 1993, and Miller Williams, at Clinton’s second, in 1997. (Some would include James Dickey, who composed a poem that he read at Jimmy Carter’s inaugural gala but not at the inauguration.) Now America is about to meet its fourth inaugural poet, a 46-year-old Yale professor named Elizabeth Alexander