Poetry and the Inauguration: How Poets Participated in this Presidential Ceremony

Posted by Rashawnda Atkinson on Jan 20, 2017 11:43:00 AM

the-white-house-1623005_1280.jpgToday is Inauguration Day, a celebration and ceremony signifying the start [or continuation] of a president's administration.  Recognized on the 20th of January every four years, many entertainers, dignitaries, and American citizens participate in the festivities during and after the inauguration.  What is intriguing, however, is the relatively few poets involved in the ceremony.  It was only in 1961 that Robert Frost read his poem "The Gift Outright" at the late John F. Kennedy's first inauguration.  Since then, four other poets share this honor with him: Maya Angelou's 1993 reading of "On Pulse of Morning", Miller Williams read "Of History and Hope" in 1997, Elizabeth Alexander's 2009 reading of "Praise Song for the Day", and Richard Blanco's 2013 reading of "One Today."  How then, did these poets represent the attitudes and political climates of their day?


Originally writing a different poem, due to his failing eyesight, Frost recited "The Gift Outright," a poem highlighting the relationship between the United States geographically and the United States as a people.  Frost wrote about the struggle the colonists had and their fight for independence from Great Britain as well as touting claim to America before the first settlers arriving in these lines: "The land was ours before we were the land’s./ She was our land more than a hundred years" (Frost, 1941).  This poem highlighted the positive aspects of the manifest destiny doctrine adopted by the United States in its formative years.


Unfortunately, it wasn't until over 30 years later that Maya Angelou read one of her most well-known poems during President Bill Clinton's first inauguration address.  Contrary to Frost's poem read a few decades earlier, "On Pulse of Morning" questioned the relationship America had with its citizens, highlighting the violence and mistreatment of minority groups and the bloodshed surrounding slavery and the conquering of Native American territories.  Angelou uses natural elements to convey the outcry of those experiencing injustice as well as a call to unite our nation under the banners of respect, teamwork, and receptive to learn from others.  This following quote represents this idea, "Yet, today I call you to my riverside,/If you will study war no more./ Come, clad in peace and I will sing the songs/The Creator gave to me when I/And the tree and stone were one" (Angelou, 1993).


The next inaugural ceremony in 1997 saw Miller Williams' "Of History and Hope" read before re-elected President Clinton.  Williams compares and contrasts America's past and present to the potential future for the upcoming generations.  More than just a survey of rights and wrongs or a rallying cry for change, Miller's poem reads more like a platform of ideals he believes the nation needs to instill in our children and a push to decide the kind of country this will be.  Our country is obliged to make change in his opinion because many of the "disenfranchised dead" (Williams, 1997) deserve to have an answer for the future generations.  These sentiments are highlighted in lines such as "But how do we fashion the future?/Who can say how/except in the minds of those who will call it Now?/The children. The children. And how does our garden grow?" and "We know what we have done and what we have said,/and how we have grown, degree by slow degree,/believing ourselves toward all we have tried to become—/just and compassionate, equal, able, and free" (Williams 1997).


The poems written for President Obama's first and second inauguration reflected the political climate of the time the poets wrote them in.  Elizabeth Alexander's "Praise Song for the Day" requires the hearers to view the imagery she paints of the country today while recognizing the cost of freedom and liberty.  Although she  knows "that many have died for this day" (Alexander, 2002), her optimism in knowing that one day soon we will work together well as a nation through the power of love.  The last known inaugural poem, Richard Blanco's "One Today", carries a similar tone, highlighting the importance of unity and togetherness while acknowledging some politically charged issues, namely the Sandy Hook massacre and income inequality.


You can translate this into the classroom by having students write their own inaugural poems for the new president.  Have them express their feelings and thoughts via poetry and for an added bonus, mail them to the White House and ask for a response!  Also, students can publish their own inaugural poems in a book to have in the school library so that students read them over the years.  Create another book every four years and have students analyze the previous group's poems to decide themes, mood, and style.  Finally, students can memorize the inaugural poems of their choice and recite them in front of an audience as a part of a school function near inauguration day.  What are your inauguration day plans?  Share your ideas below.

Topics: Classroom Ideas, Reading Lists, Writing

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