Elizabeth Alexander

The Poem Asked for Their Attention

Excerpt from "Words That Shimmer," an On Being conversation with Elizabeth Alexander (January 6, 2011): 

I went to a Quaker high school in Washington, Sidwell Friends School, and we had meeting for worship once a week. It was, I don't know, 45 minutes or something like that of sitting together in silence and, when moved to speak, people would speak. It didn't happen very often. And then around graduation, everyone would get up and cry and that was the speaking.

There was always one teacher who spoke and, as slightly cynical teenagers, we weren't going to speak. But nonetheless, the quiet was very important. I even understood that then. But more importantly, the perhaps three minutes of silence with which we began the day, I cherished that then. That overrode all teenage restless silliness. I knew that that moment of inner listening would have analogs throughout the day, if you know what I mean.

That sort of chunk — and right now you can't see me because we're on the radio, but I'm holding my fingers together in a little rectangle. You know, so like, that chunk that smaller than a brick-sized chunk of contemplative silence with which to simply listen and take stock would be something that I would need to call on throughout the day. I think that's a very, very important way to be able to go through life. And I think that poetry can provide those kinds of chunks.

You know, right before the inaugural, the day before, there was a sound check and the sound guy asked me to — you know, the microphone. Oh, my goodness, just this amazing instrument, this finely calibrated, you know, kind of the Hope diamond of microphones — so he said, "OK, why don't you say some poetry" — that was his phrase, say some poetry — "so we can see how it works on the mic." And the day before, Washington was full of people. People were already coming to the inaugural and the mall was quite full with lots of folks, and it was just me up on the stage and no one was looking at me. And I recited one of my favorite poems, Gwendolyn Brooks' "Kitchenette Building," which starts out:

We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,
Grayed in, and gray. "Dream" makes a giddy sound, not strong
Like "rent," "feeding a wife," "satisfying a man."

And then I continued with the poem which asks about could a dream rise up through onion fumes and yesterday's garbage ripening in the halls? It's extraordinary, beautiful, tiny, tiny sonnet. And let me tell you, hundreds of people literally stopped in their tracks to hear this unknown-to-them person recite a poem by someone unknown no doubt to most of them. And these hundreds of people, I watched them sort of gather in a darkening sort of cluster and then, when the poem was over, they clapped. In other words, they knew it was something about the form of the poem, right?

I didn't say who I was or what I was doing or ask for their attention. The poem asked for their attention inherently. And the poem is about people in Chicago. She's describing poor people in the 1940s living in these kitchenette apartments, under really difficult circumstances trying to find a way to imagine something else, something beautiful. It's about a very important topic that transcends time and space. You know, how can the imagination and the spirit lift us above our quotidian difficulties.

Kitchennette Building
by Gwendolyn Brooks

We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan, 
Grayed in, and gray. "Dream" mate, a giddy sound, not strong 
Like "rent", "feeding a wife", "satisfying a man". 

But could a dream sent up through onion fumes 
Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes 
And yesterday's garbage ripening in the hall, 
Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms, 

Even if we were willing to let it in, 
Had time to warm it, keep it very clean, 
Anticipate a message, let it begin? 

We wonder. But not well! not for a minute! 
Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now, 
We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it. 

We Real Cool
by Gwendolyn Brooks

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.  

[More poems by Gwendolyn Brooks]

Best Conditions

Elizabeth Alexander, from “Words that Shimmer,” a conversation with Krista Tippett, Being, Jan. 6, 2011:

Lucille Clifton, Wanda Coleman — they've talked about poetry as an art form that is a poor peoples' art form, which is to say you don't need [a lot of free time available]. You can't write a novel without a lot of time to yourself—they don't get written any other way. But I love how these women talk about how you can snatch time to make a poem. That doesn't mean that they aren't hard to make, but it means that they are like grass or flowers coming up in the sidewalk cracks.

Wanda Coleman says, "I can start a poem if I'm waiting on line. Poor people spend a lot of time waiting on line. I couldn't write a novel waiting on line, but I could start a poem waiting on line." Lucille Clifton says, "The best conditions for me to write poetry are at the kitchen table, one kid's got the measles, another two kids are smacking each other. You know, life is going on around me." And not only is that the stuff of the poems, but also that she can snatch little tiny snippets of space for the poems. She had six children and she was very, very funny. She said, "Why do you think my poems are so short?" Because that's what results when you're grabbing time like that. But, I mean, they are incredibly, powerfully meditative, amazing, amazing poems. So I think [when it comes to] poetry — you don't make any money from writing it and you don't need any money to make it.

Neonatology
by Elizabeth Alexander, (excerpt) from Crave Radiance
[Listen]

Giving birth is like jazz, something from silence,
then all of it. Long, elegant boats,
blood-boiling sunshine, human cargo,
a handmade kite —

Postpartum.
No longer a celebrity, pregnant lady, expectant.
It has happened; you are here,
each dram you drain a step away
from flushed and floating, lush and curled.
Now you are the pink one, the movie star.
It has happened. You are here,

and you sing, mewl, holler, peep,
swallow the light and bubble it back,
shine, contain multitudes, gleam. You

are the new one, the movie star,
and birth is like jazz,
from silence and blood, silence
then everything,

jazz.

Autumn Passage
by Elizabeth Alexander, from Crave Radiance
[Listen]

On suffering, which is real.
On the mouth that never closes,
the air that dries the mouth.

On the miraculous dying body,
its greens and purples.
On the beauty of hair itself.

On the dazzling toddler:
"Like eggplant," he says,
when you say "Vegetable,"

"Chrysanthemum" to "Flower."
On his grandmother's suffering, larger
than vanished skyscrapers,

September zucchini,
other things too big. For her glory
that goes along with it,

glory of grown children's vigil,
communal fealty, glory
of the body that operates

even as it falls apart, the body
that can no longer even make fever
but nonetheless burns

florid and bright and magnificent
as it dims, as it shrinks,
as it turns to something else.

Praise Song for the Day

 

Poet Elizabeth Alexander’s poem, delivered at the inauguration of President Barack Obama.

Praise song for the day.

Praise Song for the Day Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each others’ eyes or not, about to speak or speaking. All about us is noise. All about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din, each one of our ancestors on our tongues. Someone is stitching up a hem, darning a hole in a uniform, patching a tire, repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.

A farmer considers the changing sky; A teacher says, “Take out your pencils. Begin.”

We encounter each other in words, Words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed; Words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark the will of someone and then others who said, “I need to see what’s on the other side; I know there’s something better down the road.”

We need to find a place where we are safe; We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain, that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle; praise song for the day. Praise song for every hand-lettered sign; The figuring it out at kitchen tables.

Some live by “Love thy neighbor as thy self.”

Others by first do no harm, or take no more than you need.

What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light. Love with no need to preempt grievance.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp -- praise song for walking forward in that light.

Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen, and friends lead the crowd in singing Woody Guthrie's This Land is Your Land (1.18.09)

 

See also: We Are One: The Inauguration Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial

The Human Voice

Ars Poetica #100: I Believe
by Elizabeth Alexander

Poetry, I tell my students,
is idiosyncratic. Poetry

is where we are ourselves,
(though Sterling Brown said

“Every ‘I’ is a dramatic ‘I’”)
digging in the clam flats

for the shell that snaps,
emptying the proverbial pocketbook.

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.
Poetry (and now my voice is rising)

is not all love, love, love,
and I’m sorry the dog died.

Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)
is the human voice,

and are we not of interest to each other?

* * * * *

Poet Elizabeth Alexander will read at the swearing in of Barack Obama next month. In response to the news, she said, “This incoming president of ours has shown in every act that words matter, that words carry meaning, that words carry power, that words are the medium with which we communicate across difference, and that words have tremendous possibilities and those possibilities are not empty."

[Thanks Jeanne!]