February 14, 2017

Inauguration Poems: A Democratic Tradition

Robert Frost at the inauguration of JFK in 1961


Summoning artists to participate
In the august occasions of the state
Seems something artists ought to celebrate.
  - from "Dedication" by Robert Frost


Donald Trump's inauguration did not feature a poet and a poem for the occasion. Does a poem on that historic day - or the absence of a poem - have any larger significance?

Former Poet Laureate of the United States Rita Dove said, "When you hear a poem, you both feel it enter you, but you also have to rise to meet it. That pulls the citizen in you out, into the air. That's why I think it's important and meaningful to have a poem read at a swearing-in of a president."

Occasional poetry has a much longer tradition than our country. Rita Dove was asked to read her poem, "Lady Freedom Among Us," at the bicentennial of the laying of the cornerstone of the Capitol in 1993.

Maya Angelou read "On the Pulse of Morning" and Miller Williams read "Of Hope and History" for Clinton's ceremonies.

I recall being excited that Robert Frost would read at John F. Kennedy's inauguration. He wrote a poem for the day titled "Dedication" (later retitled "For John F. Kennedy His Inauguration") but had trouble reading the sheet in the bright sunlight and so recited from memory his older, shorter poem, "The Gift Outright."

In 2009, Elizabeth Alexander read "Praise Song for the Morning," composed for the occasion of Barack Obama's first inauguration. Richard Blanco read "One Today" when Barack Obama was inaugurated for his second term.

It is so odd that only these three Democratic presidents have had a poet at their ceremony. That really doesn't make sense to me. There are certainly many Republicans who read and write poetry. It is a tradition that should not be followed by only one party.


The Gift Outright
Poem recited at John F. Kennedy's Inauguration
by Robert Frost

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.

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