The Five Inaugural Poems, Part 1

Imagine you’re sitting at home. It’s a crisp Autumn evening, during an election year. Your phone rings and guess what–it’s the President-Elect, and they want to commission a poem from you! What goes through your mind? Panic? Excitement? Perhaps both. Of course, only five people have received that call, all esteemed poets, and all for Democratic presidents.

Poetry seems particularly suited for illustrious events – coronations, graduations, and inaugurations. There’s a baseline level of grandiosity baked into poetry as an art form. Or perhaps that’s just Western literary history, tangled up with the Romantics and their penchant for the Ideal.

Maya Angelou performing at Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration.

I don’t envy the task of these five poets. Trying to write a poem that addresses the heart of a whole nation, that’s about as big as it gets. The broader your subject matter, and audience, the more difficult it is to thread the needle of a poem. What style? How verbose? What kind of metaphors?

If anyone is up to the task, then naturally it would be writers like Robert Frost or Maya Angelou.

“I think all poems are commissioned. They just come to me without somebody outside commissioning them. The idea comes and I will live with them ‘til I get it as close to what I mean.”

– Maya Angelou, in this wonderful interview.

I mean, come on, it’s Maya Angelou! We might as well start with her beautiful poem, On the Pulse of Morning performed at Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993. It’s short enough for a look at the full text:

~

A Rock, A River, A Tree

Hosts to species long since departed,

Marked the mastodon,

The dinosaur, who left dried tokens

Of their sojourn here

On our planet floor,

Any broad alarm of their hastening doom

Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.



But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,

Come, you may stand upon my

Back and face your distant destiny,

But seek no haven in my shadow,

I will give you no hiding place down here.



You, created only a little lower than

The angels, have crouched too long in

The bruising darkness

Have lain too long

Facedown in ignorance,

Your mouths spilling words

Armed for slaughter.



The Rock cries out to us today,

You may stand upon me,

But do not hide your face.

~

I love this poem. It doesn’t wander too far from it’s simple metaphor, and stays firmly in spoken-word musicality. One thing we may notice among these poems is that they really are meant to be performed, said aloud with a full breath. Angelou’s poem grounds us in our history as a species, not only as a nation. Fascinating that she chose “mastodon” as one of the few concrete / specific terms in her poem. There’s a sense of scale to her poem, everything looms: destiny, dinosaurs, and darkness.

This poem is like any good speech or essay: defined by a clear call to action. Angelou sets this up with an existential warning, a reminder that once prominent species have been reduced to dust. Then, the Earth itself is personified – chiding us for needless war, and empty words. This planet is all we have, We the People, are all we have. So we should stand together in the light, and “face [our] distant destiny”. Angelou is affirming a belief in the inherent value of human life, the nobility of doing our best work on this little rock in space, even if we sometimes feel like a tiny blip on an endless cosmic readout.

A random quote that comes to mind is from the movie Thor: Ragnarok, where Odin is giving some advice to his son, who is on the brink of death – “Asgard is not a place, it never was. Asgard is where our people stand.”

This is the reading copy of Miller Williams poem, for the 1997 inauguration of Bill Clinton. Look at those scansion marks that indicate how to read the poem according to a certain rhythm!

I’m going in pseudo-chronological order (skipping Robert Frost ‘til the end): next up is Of History and Hope by Miller Williams.

Look, I am an unabashed fan of poetry, but this one is not my favorite of the inaugural poems. To me, it gains plenty of power in its competent rhythms, but I just wish for more substantive metaphors.

Let’s talk about what this poem does well: it does not aim for an academic audience. Most politicians speak at an 8th grade or lower reading level, at least in their public stump speeches. Why? To connect with the largest amounts of Americans possible.

This poem by Miller Williams only alienates me as an obsessive reader of poetry – it is potentially perfect for people tuning in from all across the country. I guess I just wish it was a bit less saccharine, a bit less like a valedictorian speech, a bit less vague. “The children. The children.” No thank you. We live in a confusing time of irony and post-irony, so maybe my cynicism is bleeding through on this one. The earnestness of Williams’ poem is cloying for me, but hopefully was uplifting for its 1997 audience!

Elizabeth Alexander performing at Barack Obama’s 2008 inauguration.

Now this is maybe the best of them all. Praise Song for the Day, by Elizabeth Alexander, abounds in specificity – purposely weaving a tapestry of different American experiences. The earnestness in this poem is never overpowering, because the visuals enrich the verse. There’s boom boxes, hand-lettered signs, and “glittering edifices”. The humble juxtaposed directly with the grandiose.

Praise Song for the Day makes direct references to the Black Experience in America, from the subjugation of slavery, to daily economic struggles, but that isn’t the only focus of the poem. Given that this was Barack Obama’s inauguration, I think she made the exact right choices in terms of content. Readable, uplifting, historically grounded, the kind of poem that makes you feel connected with other people.

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 thyself,

others by first do no harm or take no more

than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?

– Elizabeth Alexander

There’s a few themes starting to emerge from Angelou, Miller, and Alexander. Words are referenced as something both insufficient and totally necessary. Miller and Alexander both say “bramble” which is interesting, or just coincidence. Hope remains a clear touchstone for them all. Those who went before, the “anonymous dead” and “ancestors on the tip of our tongue” are also in the mix.

Next up is Richard Blanco, the final poet in our 1993-2013 cohort (Frost is a bit of an outlier, having performed in 1961).

Blanco speaking at Obama’s second inauguration.

Richard Blanco wrote the longest poem, One Today, and he’s notable for being the only one to include first person language. All the other poems use the royal “we” and generally speak from a more collective viewpoint. However, since Blanco is clearly picking up where Alexander left off in 2009…adding lots of mini-vignettes of American life…it makes sense to ground the verse in something as human as the “I”. Blanco keeps his focus on “us”, the body politic, but includes small references to his own his experience as well. Here’s a few of those snippets:

~

My face, your face, millions of 
faces in morning’s mirrors,
each one yawning to life,
crescendoing into our day...

...hands
as worn as my father’s cutting
sugarcane
so my brother and I could have
books and shoes.

~

He keeps these references infrequent and close to the beginning of the poem. By the end, there is a message about harmony so resonant and focused that to use first person language would be distracting. Blanca’s poem is the kind of poetry that is most commonly found “in the wild” these days. It’s contemporary in style, rich in detail and metaphor, and grounded in an strong sense of individual identity.

It seems like inaugural poets tend to emulate those who went before. Angelou takes notes from Frost. Blanco’s poem is an expansion on Alexander, which is a more specific version of Williams’ piece.

There’s something to be said here about the writing process – you are what you read. If you got that phone call from the President-Elect, then perhaps your first move would be to start familiarizing yourself with whoever was commissioned before.

Finally, it’s time for a brief discussion of Robert Frost’s poem, The Gift Outright, performed for JFK’s inauguration in 1961.

The master of blank verse in his own handwriting.

Frost had two poems prepared for the inauguration, one original, one composed nearly two decades before. Both sing America’s praises eloquently, although with a certain amount of colonialist overtones. Frost wrote Dedication as a “preamble” for his other poem, and y’all, it’s pretty pulpy by Frost standards. He makes direct references to the close election results, how they were “sure to be abided by”, a line that hits different in a political season where President Trump is basically attempting a soft coup via Twitter accusations.

The Gift Outright is a fine poem, but it kinda reads like a “manifest destiny” painting, where Native Americans are happily ignored or pushed aside as a mild inconvenience to the “true” owners of the land. It’s Frost, so the general poetics are skillful, and its concise in a way that Dedication is not. Just not my cup of tea, even if it is a classic.

I was born in an era of anarcho-environmental poets, of poets from New Native Nations, poets who acknowledge America as being destructive in her appetites…so to read some of these poems that ignore America’s sins…well, they border on propaganda. I can see “The Gift Outright” being co-opted by alt-right trolls in a heartbeat.

That’s why I think the best inaugural poems are humanist, more than they are nationalist. America is defined the quality of her people, not the quality of her institutions. We rank low in every conceivable metric for an industrialized country, including the democracy index. The Constitution is a flawed document, and dark money controls most political choices.

What remains are the people – those striving for the ideals that, by definition, do not exist.

There is a clear through-line between these poems, as I’ve been reading, I get that sense of grandiosity. Call it the “purple mountain majesty” effect.

Honestly, I wish more Presidents had poets perform at their inaugurations. I’m betting that Joe Biden will probably commission a poet, since both of his Democratic predecessors have – but who?

I think Natasha Tretheway would be perfect. But there’s so many poets who would know exactly what to say for our…*ahem* unique phase as a nation. For all we know, that poet has already received that phone call, and is setting pen to paper, contemplating America, in all her contradictions and beauty.

~

Stay tuned for part II, where I do a text analysis of the poems – not in terms of scansion, but in terms of stats! What’s the most common word, what trends exist in our sample of five poems? Graphs, charts, and analytics!

~

Text Sources: https://poets.org/inaugural-poems-history

Photo Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The University of Texas, The New Yorker

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