Inaugural Poet Part Of History - Again

For 46-year-old Elizabeth Alexander, a Yale professor of African American Studies, the chance to give the inauguration poem next Tuesday is in part the realization of a dream more than 40 years in the making, reports CBS News chief national correspondent Byron Pitts.

She was barely one year old when her parents brought her to the Lincoln Memorial to hear Dr. King's speech. Her father was a civil rights advisor to President Johnson.

She was a part of history then. She will be a part of history now.

"Throughout the years, that became an important, iconic story in our family," Alexander said. "A way of saying, 'this is what you do when you think that things should be better. You work, you march, you do and contribute what you have to contribute.' That's what always meant to me so the day after Dr. King's birthday, to be in that very spot and for me also to be in the great city that I grew up in is going to be very powerful."

She becomes only the fourth person in history to read a poem during a presidential inauguration.

The last poet to have this honor was Miller Williams, who read for President Bill Clinton's second Inauguration 1997.

Maya Angelou was his first in 1993.

Robert Frost was the very first during President John F. Kennedy's inauguration in 1961.

Frost actually recited an old poem he'd memorized. Blinded by the sun, he couldn't read the poem from the podium he'd actually written for the day.

Speaking of Frost, what's Alexander's back up plan in case something goes wrong on stage on Tuesday?

"I will have many copies tucked away," she said.

With five books on poetry, a Pulitzer Prize nomination in 2005, Alexander says the inaugural poem is all but finished.

"What will be your job that day?" Pitts asked. "What are you hoping to accomplish?"

"I am hoping to offer language that will give people a moment of pause," Alexander said. "That there is almost a quiet pool in which they are able to stand and think for a moment. I think that's part of what poetry does. It arrests us."

Alexander says she's not nervous. She's humbled.

And next Tuesday, she hopes to create a visual imagery with words that will capture the moment in time.

  • Byron Pitts

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