Much more than we knew

If all you know of Elizabeth Alexander’s poetry is “Praise Song for the Day,” the poem she wrote for and read at the inauguration of President Barack Obama, prepare to be surprised. Once again, the truism that inaugural poems represent the worst a poet can do (Robert Frost excepted, and even he simply wrote a dedication for a good poem he’s already written) is proved; “Praise Song for the Day,” a perfectly competent poem, is by far the worst poem in this selection of Alexander’s work. If you’ve missed out on poems like “The Venus Hottentot” and “The Josephine Baker Museum,” or series like “Ars Poetica” and “Amistad” (title from the slave ship commandeered by chained Africans), this selection will solve that problem. Alexander navigates history—her own and America’s—with a steady hand on the compass and a rich repertoire of language. Considering that the worst poem she selected was basically OK, this book is a keeper.