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Barak Obama

”Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself, others by first do no harm or take no more than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?”… (Praise Song For the Day)

American poet, playwright, University Professor and essayist, Elizabeth Alexander has achieved much in her 50 years, not least being asked to recite a poem she had written -especially for the occasion -, entitled “Praise Song For the Day” at the inauguration of Barack Obama on January 20th 2009.  Only the fourth poet to read at an American Presidential inauguration, the Poetry Foundation applauded the choice of Elizabeth to carry out such an honour, declaring that “her selection affirms poetry’s central place in the soul of our country.”

Born in Harlem in 1962, she grew up in Washington DC and with a father who was the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Chairman, attending the March on Washington at the age of two was not out of the ordinary. As Elizabeth herself said “Politics was in the drinking water at my house”.  Having joined Boston University to initially study fiction writing, it was the poet Derek Walcott who saw her poetry potential through her diary and encouraged her to change her course option and study under him instead.

Since 1990 when her first book of poems, The Venus of Hottentot, was published she has had four more volumes published – Body of Life (1996), Antebellum Dream Book (2001), American Sublime (2005) – a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize -and her first young adult collection, co-written by Marilyn Nelson, Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color (2008) in which the poems give the reader a glimpse of what may have been going on in the minds of the students, the small details of their lives and what their hopes and fears may have been.  Like the poet and author Denny Bradbury in her poem “Wisdom Of Trees” from her new collection in which she writes of the inevitability and beauty within the death and subsequent rebirth of one of nature’s elements that sees all:

…”Yet trees will reach their searching branches
Up into the wind and rain
They live and die as nature dances
Next year they grow and live again.”

Elizabeth Alexander combines the young girls’ mix of fear and hope with regards to the colour of their skin and the reaction by their neighbourhood in her poem entitled “We”:

..”Our mothers have taught us remarkably
to blot out these fears, black them out, and flood
our minds with light and God’s great face.
We think about that which we cannot see:
something opening wide and bright, a key.”

As the 2007 winner of the first Jackson Prize for Poetry, awarded by Poets and Writers Inc., Elizabeth is quoted as saying the following with regards to one element of her profession:

“Poetry is what you find
in the dirt in the corner,
overhear on the bus, God
in the details, the only way
to get from here to there.”