Lyndsey Wajert: What’s in a poem?

On Inauguration Day, many of us will be lining the streets to watch the parade, while others will simply be busy avoiding the influx of an estimated four million visitors. But what may not be at the top of most people’s agenda is perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of this inauguration: On Jan. 20, the nation will hear an original work by poet Elizabeth Alexander, whom President-elect Barack Obama has selected to be among the speakers.

Surprisingly, the selection of a poet as part of the festivities is hardly a tradition. In fact, Alexander is only the fourth poet honored with the task. As GW students, we have an extra reason to get excited about this particular poet – her mother, Adele Logan Alexander, is a professor of history at our very own university.

Amidst the jubilation that is sure to take over the city on Inauguration Day, a poet can give a special voice to the people and creatively evoke the emotions of the historic event. We must use Tuesday’s inauguration to show enthusiasm for including a poet in the inaugural celebration, in hopes of making it a permanent tradition.

It hasn’t always been smooth sailing for inaugural poets. In 1961, Robert Frost was unable to read his special composition titled “Dedication” for President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration because of driving winds and blinding snow glare. Instead, he simply recited “The Gift Outright” from memory. President Clinton’s chosen poets, Maya Angelou and Miller Williams in 1993 and 1997 respectively, composed pieces that may have failed to resonate in the minds of Americans.

But how does one go about writing a piece that will be read in front of millions around the world? How does one put the momentum of a country on the brink of change into words? How does one share the spotlight with such an eloquent president-to-be?

Looking back on the past year’s election, and the meaning of the vote, it seems clear that a remarkable new spirit is stirring the nation. Alexander faces the daunting, yet wonderful opportunity to capture that spirit through her poem. She appears ready to take on the challenge, and if the American public responds positively to her poem, hopefully future presidents will also use this literary instrument to inspire the nation.

Alexander’s work is not ethereal, sublime nor distant. As a professor of African-American studies at Yale University and a very politically engaged poet, Alexander has received many awards for her writing on civil rights, class differences and gender equality. She was raised in Washington D.C. and comes from a politically active family.

Professor Adele Alexander says her daughter’s selection “clearly reflects the new president’s respect for her work specifically, but also his own understanding of the beauty and power of words.”

Perhaps President-elect Obama’s choice for the relatively infrequent honor indicates what is to come in the next four years. Maybe a greater emphasis on literature and education, civil rights, women’s rights and the voice of the common man is reflected in the choice, not merely the fact that the poet is a personal favorite.

So, on Inauguration Day while you bask in history in the making, I invite you to watch for Elizabeth Alexander and hope with me that her small slice of history is a portent of both a new tradition and a new spirit.

-The writer, a freshman majoring in journalism, is a Hatchet columnist.

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