Today 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, "
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.