Elizabeth Alexander, who teaches at Yale, was plucked last week from the relatively obscure recesses of contemporary poetry for a moment on the world stage. President-elect Barack Obama has commissioned her to compose and read a poem for his inauguration, making her only the fourth poet in American history to read at one and elevating the art to unaccustomed prominence in the national psyche, at least for a day.
Mr. Obama’s inauguration, on Jan. 20, calls for an “occasional poem,” written to commemorate a specific event. This is not precisely what Ms. Alexander does, but she is preparing for the challenge.
“Writing an occasional poem has to attend to the moment itself,” she said in an interview, “but what you hope for, as an artist, is to create something that has integrity and life that goes beyond the moment.”
To prepare, she has delved into W. H. Auden, particularly his “Musée des Beaux Arts” (“About suffering they were never wrong/The Old Masters”), and the work of Gwendolyn Brooks, the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize, for poetry. Auden, she said, “asked very large questions about how we stand in history.” And Brooks has had a major influence on her work.
“She should have been the one, were she living, for this,” Ms. Alexander said of the honor bestowed by Mr. Obama. “The Bard of the South Side. She wrote from Obama’s neighborhood for so many years.” Here she recited Brooks’s familiar line: “Conduct your blooming in the noise and whip of the whirlwind.”
“Language like that,” Ms. Alexander said, “has eternal life.”
Ms. Alexander, 46, is the incoming chairwoman of the African-American studies department at Yale and the mother of two sons, 9 and 10. She writes often of race, gender and class, in both poetry and prose, nurtures young black poets through Cave Canem, a poetry workshop, and has been a friend of Mr. Obama for more than a decade.
Asked if she thought that the friendship played a role in her being picked for the inauguration, she said no. The Obamas have many friends and know other poets, she said.
“One of the things we’ve seen with every choice he’s made is that it’s based on what he perceives as excellence,” Ms. Alexander said. “I don’t think you would let friendship determine who you chose to do something like this. You can do lots of things to be nice to your friends — you can invite them to an inaugural ball. But I don’t think friends have to do each other this kind of favor.”
Ms. Alexander was born in Harlem, where her father’s family was rooted, but grew up in Washington, where she attended Georgetown Day School and Sidwell Friends, then Yale. Politics, she said, was “in the drinking water in my house.” Her father, Clifford, was a civil rights adviser to President Lyndon B. Johnson and was instrumental in the passage of the Voting Rights Act. He was the first black to be named secretary of the Army and chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Her mother, Adele, teaches African-American women’s history at George Washington University. Her brother, Mark, teaches at Seton Hall Law School and served as policy director to Bill Bradley’s presidential campaign in 2000. An expert in campaign finance, he was a senior adviser to Mr. Obama’s campaign and is a member of his transition team.
Ms. Alexander has been on the faculty of several universities, including the University of Chicago, where she taught creative writing and African-American literature and won the Quantrell Award for excellence in undergraduate teaching. It is there in the 1990s that she met Barack and Michelle Obama.
“We’re of the exact same generation,” she said. “They are people with whom I have a lot in common.”
There was some question about whether Mr. Obama would include a poet at all in his inaugural program. There have been only three: Robert Frost in 1961, Maya Angelou in 1993 and Miller Williams in 1997.
Mr. Obama has not said publicly why he wanted a poet or why he chose Ms. Alexander. But Emmett Beliveau, the executive director of Mr. Obama’s inaugural committee, said that having a poet shows “the important role that the arts and literature can play in helping to bring our country together” and that Ms. Alexander “is an incredibly accomplished author and academic.”
Paul Muldoon, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who teaches at Princeton and is poetry editor of The New Yorker, said he guessed that Ms. Alexander was chosen on “literary merit.” He said her work “addresses a wide range of issues with terrific complexity.”
And Ms. Angelou said that when she heard of Ms. Alexander’s selection, she smiled. “She seems much like Walt Whitman,” she said. “She sings the American song.”
Ms. Alexander said she believes her poetry “attends to history,” including “sometimes thorny and difficult American history,” even as it speaks in contemporary moments and landscapes.
And she said Mr. Obama is attuned to the value of poetry. “He has said the precise and distilled and mindful language of poetry is perhaps something that can create a moment of meditation for us,” she said.
After examining previous inaugural poems, she has decided that hers will be brief. “This is one small piece of many pieces and we know what the centerpiece is,” she said, referring to Mr. Obama’s inaugural address.
“President-elect Obama is extremely efficient with language,” she added. “It is tremendously rich and tremendously precise but also never excessive. I really, really admire that. That’s a poet’s sensibility. I’m going to follow his lead.”