Poetry and Presidents
Poetry returns to the White House, my friends! What a joy!
Our new President grew up reading poetry. As a young boy, he recited poetry repeatedly to help him overcome his stutter.
Biden often quotes poetry in his speeches, especially his favorite poet, Seamus Heaney. Many Presidents and politicians cite poetry, and I’ll write more about poetry and politics in a future post.
Why care about poetry and Presidents? The soul of our language, the spirit of our humanness, is reflected in poetry. A President who loves art and poetry tells us something about the measure of that person.
If you watched the Inauguration of our 46th President Joe Biden, you probably saw Amanda Gorman, a talented twenty-two-year-old poet, express the hope for a better America.
Amanda’s not a former stutterer like Biden, but she too had a speech impediment when she was younger. You wouldn’t know that listening to her engaging performance.
Poetry seems like such a natural inclusion at a President’s inauguration, and I was surprised how rarely poets have been invited. Poetry can encapsulate so much history, boldness, idealism in a few words.
In the history of US inaugurations, only four Presidents have chosen to have a poem read at their swearing-in ceremony. There have been six poets:
- 1961 Robert Frost, chosen by John F. Kennedy. The poem he wrote for the Inauguration, “Dedication,” was scrapped by Frost the podium. Frost couldn’t read it because the glare was so bright on his paper. Instead, he chose to recite, from memory, a poem Kennedy had originally requested of him, “The Gift Outright.” Although I love Frost’s poetry, neither of these are great or memorable poems. Frost called “The Gift Outright,” a poem about the history of the U.S. Certainly, white history. If only we would surrender to the land as Frost suggests perhaps we’d take far better care of it and its people.
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,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she will become.
—Robert Frost, “The Gift Outright,” circa 1942, as delivered at the Jan 20, 1961 inauguration
- 1993 Maya Angelou, chosen by Bill Clinton. Thirty-two years passed between poets. Angelou’s poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” remains as relevant today as then:
Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.
History, despite its wrenching pain
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.
—Maya Angelou, excerpt “On the Pulse of Morning,” Jan 20, 1993
- 1997 Miller Williams, chosen by Bill Clinton. Not a memorable poem but well-intentioned:
Who were many people coming togethercannot become one people falling apart.Who dreamed for every child an even chancecannot let luck alone turn doorknobs or not.—Miller Williams, excerpt “Of History and Hope,” Jan 20, 1998
- 2009 Elizabeth Alexander, chosen by Barack Obama. Alexander’s powerful poem was titled “Praise Song for the Day:”
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?
Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.
—Elizabeth Alexander, excerpt “Praise Song for the Day,” Jan 20, 2009
- 2013 Richard Blanco, chosen by Barack Obama. Blanco’s beautiful poem, “One Today,” reminds us we all live under one sky:
One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes
tired from work: some days guessing at the weather
of our lives, some days giving thanks for a love
that loves you back, sometimes praising a mother
who knew how to give, or forgiving a father
who couldn’t give what you wanted.
—Richard Blanco, excerpt “One Today,” Jan 20, 2013
- 2021 Amanda Gorman, chosen by Joe Biden. Gorman’s poem, “The Hill We Climb,” captured so much of what many of us are feeling right now in America:
We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it,
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.
And this effort very nearly succeeded.
But while democracy can be periodically delayed,
It can never be permanently defeated.
In this truth, in this faith, we trust.
For while we have our eyes on the future,
history has its eyes on us.
—Amanda Gorman, excerpt “The Hill We Climb,” Jan 20, 2021
☮ →Note: In 1977, Jimmy Carter selected a poet to read at a celebration held after his Inauguration. James Dickey read his poem, “The Strength of Fields,” at the Kennedy Center. There have been other poems, too, outside of the Inauguration ceremony itself.
I said last month that this post would include my story about acquiring a modern Aurora 88. This post ended up being way too long, and so I pulled out the Aurora 88 section for its own post next month.
I’m lingering over Natalie Goldberg’s informative and beautiful book, Three Simple Lines, A Writer’s Pilgrimage into the Heart and Homeland of Haiku.
Santa Fe’s Garcia Street Books interviewed Natalie about her book. A delightful interview worth your time:
Mad at the World, A Life of John Steinbeck, by William Souder is the other book I’m reading. Steinbeck has been one of my literary loves since I was introduced to him in high school.
In addition to re-reading the lyric play, The Cure of Troy, by Seamus Heaney, I read Henri Cole’s Blizzard more than once. Filled with evocative, empathetic sonnets, Blizzard may be my favorite of Cole’s poetry collections.
He’s not an “Inauguration” poet, but Jericho Brown wrote a must-read poem, “Inaugural,” on the occasion of the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Published in the New York Times, Jan 20, 2021.
Thanks for reading, dear friends. Hang tough and tender, and stay kind and curious!
What if, as Elizabeth Alexander asked, the mightiest word is love?
For, as Amanda Gorman wrote, there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it./If only we’re brave enough to be it.
See you anon,