Inauguration Poet’s GW Connection

Every president should commence a term in office with poetry.

The arts are too often separated from government, and for no good reason. Only two presidents have invited poets to read from their work during inauguration: John. F. Kennedy (Robert Frost) and Bill Clinton (Maya Angelou, Miller Williams).

Good news: Barack Obama has likewise named an inaugural poet, Elizabeth Alexander. A professor of African American studies at Yale and a DC native, Alexander’s creative work seems intimately connected to her research and teaching.

Elizabeth Alexander is also the daughter of Adele Alexander, a popular professor of history right here at GW.

You can find a selection of Elizabeth Alexander’s poetry here. I’ll paste one poem (“Islands Number Four,” its title taken from the work of Agnes Martin), from Alexander’s renowned collection Antebellum Dream Book.

Islands Number Four


Agnes Martin, Islands Number Four,
Repeated ovals on a grid, what appears
To be perfect is handmade, disturbed.
Tobacco brown saturates canvas to burlap,
Clean form from a distance, up close, her hand.
All wrack and bramble to oval and grid.
Hollows in the body, containers for grief.
What looks to be perfect is not perfect.

Odd oval portholes that flood with light.


Description of a Slave Ship, 1789:
Same imperfect ovals, calligraphic hand.
At a distance, pattern. Up close, bodies
Doubled and doubled, serried and stacked
In the manner of galleries in a church,
In full ships on their sides or on each other
Isle of woe, two-by-two, spoon-fashion,
Not unfrequently found dead in the morning.
Slave-ships, the not-pure, imperfect ovals,
Portholes through which they would never see home,
The flesh rubbed off their shoulders, elbows, hips.
Barracoon, sarcophagus, indestructible grief
Nesting in the hollows of the abdomen.
The slave-ship empty, its cargo landed
And sold for twelve ounces of gold a-piece

Or gone overboard. Islands. Aftermath.

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