The Five Inaugural Poems, Part 2

Analyzing the previous five inaugural poems given by Robert Frost, Maya Angelou, Miller Williams, Elizabeth Alexander, and Richard Blanco – by line count, word count, and sentiment! Also, some predictions for the next inaugural poem in 2021. For a more thematic and critical reading of the poems, check out Part 1.

We only have five poems in our data set, but the general trend seems to be an increase in line count every inauguration, and a doubling in word count perhaps every two inaugurations.

The question is… why? Well, I think mainstream poets have gotten more verbose along the same time-frame. Book-length poems regularly win prizes like the National Book Award these days. And these are dense,

We can attribute this partially to an increase in poets that receive higher education at MFAs in creative writing across the country. It’s not that the programs themselves produce longer word counts, or that rural, non-college educated poets don’t write longer poems – it’s more about the way education fosters a network of people who change trends in poetry. I’m just spitballing here. Even then, the following formula does not apply to why the inaugural poems increase in word count, since by any definition, all the poets were highly educated.

If education includes not just college, but education via at-home reading, peer groups, etc?

Of course, MFA programs are controversial, since discrimination still exists for many grad students in academia. They generate a lot of debt, and not enough job opportunities, which makes it a class issue as well. Just as there are aesthetic trends that emerge from university educated poets, there are trends that exist and flourish in other areas, like alternative journals, or on social media.

However, it’s fair to say that we live in what Mark McGurl calls “The Program Era” of poetry. To grab a chart from this article on the same topic:

This hard to read chart is from national data on the number of undergrad + graduate degrees in creative writing, from the 1980s to 2013.

That article talks about how many writers join workshops, move to urban centers, and interact with other poets on social media. A certain kind of college-induced verbosity exists for some poets, but is far from the only source. It may be a spurious correlation to associate creative writing degree rates with word counts in poetry, especially judging from a paltry data set of five commissioned poems. We would need a massive corpus of award-winning poetry, tidy it up, and then see if word-count increases.

Verbosity and word count are different – it just seems like the average contest-winning poem today is an ornate thing, full of verve and gregarious word choice.

It would be more interesting to see how word choice has changed over time, for example, in magazines that have been around a long time. Speaking of word choice, let’s look at the most common words used by each poet! Stop words, such as “the” and “to”, have been removed.


I didn’t quite get around to finishing this blog post, but I figured I’d publish what I have!


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