It must rank as the grandest poetry gig on earth, with a potential audience of billions. It may also terrify the lucky – or unlucky – author into terminal blandness or toe-curling bombast. In spite of her window of worldwide exposure, few fellow-poets will envy the task that faces Elizabeth Alexander today in front of the Capitol in Washington, DC, after musicians such as Yo-Yo Ma and singers such as Aretha Franklin have done their turns.
Alexander, now 46 and a professor at Yale University, was born in Harlem but grew up in Washington. Teaching at the University of Chicago in the early 1990s, she befriended a young colleague who, last month, invited her to perform at his big party: Barack Obama.
Alexander has dropped a few hints about the likely style of her unaugural verse, saying that the public poems that appeal to her "have a sense of focus and a kind of gravitas, an ability to appeal to larger issues without getting corny". Among the poets she's been reading for guidance are Auden, Hughes, Heaney – and Virgil. Last week, she explained in the US press: "When I compose poems, I don't think themes, I begin with language. I do believe that form and function are united... But I don't start with an idea that I wish to express in poetry." She hopes that poetry's place – for only the fourth time – in the inauguration rites may clear a space for thought amid the pomp, a "contemplative moment in the midst of this grand occasion".
Since her first collection, The Venus Hottentot in 1990, Alexander has emerged through volumes such as Antebellum Dream Book and American Sublime as a widely acclaimed poet not just of the African-American experience – although that often fires her work – but of the hybrid nation that Obama recruited so effectively. Jackie Kay, a poet of Scottish and Nigerian descent who is herself no stranger to the challenge of performing, calls Alexander "a perfect choice for Obama's inauguration"; a "wonderful poet" whose work "shows that ideas need to live in lively language". Kay finds a parallel between the poet's and politician's style of storytelling: "Obama's political success so far has been because he has brilliantly focused on the smaller details. He will have chosen Alexander because her poetry does just that, tells a huge story through the accumulation of particular moments".
Democracies tend to do the big words for big events rather badly – perhaps reassuringly so, if you trace the kinship of rhetorical grandeur and despotic terror from Caesar to Hitler. Yet, 48 years ago, president-elect John F Kennedy decided that a new phase of American liberty deserved to arrive garlanded not merely by bands and orations, but by poetry as well. He asked Robert Frost, by then 86 but still the craggy New England bard who had carved his homespun America in memorable verse for 60 years, to compose a poem for the Inauguration Day ceremonies in Washington. So Frost did – a dreadful patter of high-minded historical doggerel called "Dedication", awash with sentimental aspirations for "A golden age of poetry and power/ Of which this noonday's the beginning hour".
Then fate, or Frost's artistic unconscious, took a hand. The elderly poet found that, with the harsh glint of January sun on snow, he couldn't read his script. So instead he recited his "The Gift Outright", which begins: "The land was ours before we were the land's". It's a terrific poem about the birth of national identity in hardship and conflict, but one that unselfconsciously takes Frost's ancestry of Yankee pioneers as the folk whose story lies at America's heart.
But the Inauguration Day poem did not find a fixed niche in the handover calendar. The custom lapsed until Bill Clinton revived it in 1993, and picked the antithesis of Frost: Maya Angelou, revered memoirist of harsh times and high hopes. Her poem, "On the Pulse of Morning", saluted, ploddingly and with risky half-rhymes, a rainbow nation ("the Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek/ The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheikh") as it made its peace with the ravaged and conquered American land: "History, despite its wrenching pain,/ Cannot be unlived, and if faced/ With courage, need not be lived again".
For his second inauguration in 1997, Clinton unearthed a poet from his home state of Arkansas – Miller Williams – who also happened to be the father of a country-music legend, Lucinda Williams, a gifted lyricist herself. Williams' "Of History and Hope" falls prey, like Angelou's poem and Frost's original text, to a kind of sonorous tautology: "We mean to be the people we meant to be/ to keep on going where we meant to go".
What kind of poem might best fill that vast inaugural stage? For Kay, "an intimate poem will work best, as Obama's story of the lifespan of 106-year-old Ann Nixon Cooper captured our imagination in his luminous acceptance speech". Other British poets look on with mingled scepticism and encouragement. Ian McMillan, perhaps the best-loved of British public bards today, says: "An inauguration poem can't be small in any way. It can incorporate intimate moments, domestic images, fleeting memories, but it has to be like a political speech in that it must be based on rhythm, on repetition, on phrases that can be manipulated and spoken again and again. It has to be a poem from an oral tradition and not from a written one."
Multiple award-winner Sean O'Brien warns that "it's very difficult to align the imagination with public events to order. There's no guarantee that a real poem will emerge, however much the occasion deserves it and the poet desires it. But it's worth trying". And Ruth Padel notes that "one person's platitude will be another's revelatory insight", but stresses that "good poetry is all about risk. You want to say what has not been said before: you might fall flat on your face, you might find something new and wonderful – and the line between those is drawn in watery sand".
Should we have such public moments of poetry here – beyond the traditional Laureate's duty to mark royal hatchings, matchings and dispatchings? The office of the presidency, if not its execution, unites Americans as not even monarchy can do here. Padel points out: "There are very few things that draw a huge population like Britain's together in such a way that they can all accept that offering in the same way." In ancient Athens, she notes, citizens sought illumination on public issues not from one single laureate but from the competing insights of the great poet-dramatists: dialectic, not declamation. Besides, "nowadays there are so many other things competing with that traditional role of verse, which is to give people words with which to do their own reflecting on events: TV, pop, the opinion column. This has made poetry go much more private. The challenge is to find a new way of doing it".
O'Brien worries about poetry-haters: "There is also the question of the readiness of readers to engage with what may be a very occasional and uneasy experience, that of reading a poem at all. And we all know what fears and aggro that can produce."
Picked to speak the words that will lead America from one age to another, Elizabeth Alexander, wisely gave little away beforehand. She dutifully noted that her "joy" at landing this job from the president-elect stems from "my deep respect for him as a man of meaningful, powerful words that move us forward". Listeners who hope for upbeat crowd-pleasing may wince at her statement that "poetry is not meant to cheer; rather, poetry challenges, and moves us towards transformation". But all will welcome one firm steer about today's verse: "I won't carry on at length."
Presidential odes: Excerpts from former Inauguration Day poems
The Gift Outright, for John F. Kennedy, 1961, by Robert Frost
The land was ours before we were the land's.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England's, still colonials...
(NB from the poem Frost recited from memory, not the one he had written for the occasion)
On the Pulse of Morning, for Bill Clinton, 1993, by Maya Angelou
You, the Turk, the Swede, the German, the Scot...
You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru, bought
Sold, stolen, arriving on a nightmare
Praying for a dream.
Here, root yourselves beside me.
I am the Tree planted by the River,
Which will not be moved.
Of History and Hope, for Bill Clinton, 1997, by Miller Williams
We have memorised America,
how it was born and who we have been and where.
In ceremonies and silence we say the words,
telling the stories, singing the old songs.
We like the places they take us. Mostly we do.
The great and all the anonymous dead are there.
We know the sound of all the sounds we brought.
From 'Ars Poetica: #100. I Believe', 2005, by Elizabeth Alexander
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?