At the frosty noon hour on January 20, 1961, President John F. Kennedy took the oath of office as the 35th President of the United States. He made a choice that day not to wear a coat; he wanted to demonstrate his resiliency at the height of the Cold War. Kennedy brought the arts and humanities to the White House during his short presidency and his family would continue to celebrate his legacy by establishing what are now among the most heralded honors that American artists can receive. On that day, he demonstrated his commitment to the literary arts by inviting the elder statespoet Robert Frost to read the nation’s first inaugural poem.
Nine days from his eighty-sixth birthday, Frost offered “The Gift Outright,” a poem that Kennedy had requested. Those in attendance watched the poet’s breath punctuate the air as he recited each syllable from memory, invoking the promise of a new era of democracy. He had planned to open by reading a second poem he’d written just two days before titled “Dedication” and retitled “For John F. Kennedy His Inauguration,” but the glare of the sun thwarted his effort to read from the page once before the lectern.
Reading “Dedication” it’s clear that Frost believed that poetry held a powerful place in reminding the nation that a government is only as effective as its ability to celebrate the arts, imagine, and dream:
Come fresh from an election
like the last,
The greatest vote a people ever cast,
So close yet sure to be abided by,
It is no miracle our mood is high.
Courage is in the air in bracing whiffs
Better than all the stalemate
an’s and ifs.
Lines like these invoked by Frost are why the absence of an inaugural poem on January 20, 2017, at the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States, while not surprising, still disappointed this poet.
For weeks, I wracked my brain trying to imagine what American poet would take the devil’s bait of Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame or as long as it took to read a poem, whichever was shorter. I couldn’t come up with any poet I knew. This was a ridiculous exercise at best. I should have known better that a president-elect who would like nothing more than to abolish the National Endowment of the Arts would not instruct his inaugural planners to recruit a poet to deliver words to the people as a mindful touchstone to governing in the 21st century.
With a twinge of fairness, I find it important to divulge that John F. Kennedy’s cultured gesture of including poetry at his presidential inauguration did not become regular presidential fare. The part of the nation that longed for poets to return would have to wait thirty-three years for Maya Angelou to step into the light of January 20, 1993, at Bill Clinton’s inauguration and sing her invocation “On the Pulse of Morning,” an absorption of a nation’s rays of hope:
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts.
Each new hour holds new chances
For new beginnings.
Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.
Four years later at Clinton’s second inauguration, Miller Williams, acclaimed author, but better known to Baby Boomers as the father of singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams, would echo Angelou’s call with his own compelling response called “Of History and Hope”.
And then again, the tide turned. Poetry as part of presidential ceremony had to wait eight years for the call of Barack Obama to lift the hopes of an America traumatized by an election stolen, by four commercial flights gone berserk, and by a never-ending war on terror that mostly manufactured more geopolitical terror. On January 2009, Elizabeth Alexander rekindled the spirit of Maya Angelou with her “Praise Song for the Day,” a litany of uplifting verse to honor the country’s break with its long streak of presidential white supremacy:
Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.
Some live by love thy neighbor
others by first do no harm or
take no more
than you need. What if the
mightiest word is love?
Love beyond marital, filial,
love that casts a widening
pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt
In today’s sharp sparkle,
this winter air,
any thing can be made,
any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim,
on the cusp,
praise song for walking forward
in that light.
President Obama’s invitation to Richard Blanco just four years ago on January 21, 2013, broke further new ground and also returned us to Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” as Blanco wrote of one love between all peoples across all the country’s terrain in “One Today”:
All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
the ‘I have a dream’ we all keep dreaming,…
Poetry is a resilient art form that can celebrate as well as propagate. A week before the 2017 Inauguration, well-established and novice poets staged Writers Resist readings all across the nation. Washington State alone had seven readings from Port Townsend to Spokane. I attended the gathering on Bainbridge Island where the event opened with a recitation of the Preamble to the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence and featured a call to action from a life-long member of the American Civil Liberties Union. Then eight poets stood before those assembled to read about their immigration status, their battles with poverty, their intergenerational dialogs with family members about something called the American Dream.
Inauguration Day came and went without a poem. I listened to the gnarly, fear-mongering rhetoric of the next president, but I had to turn the volume down on NPR during the actual administration of the oaths of office. Then, something miraculous happened: during the day through social media, I noticed others noting the lack of poetry to set an aspirational tone for the country. Poetry lovers and lovers of country found solace in posting their own and others’ work. Poetry became a groundswell, an antidote to the fear and loathing from the new top executive, a clarion call breathing life into my favorite line from Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s 1975 “Poetry as Insurgent Act”: “Give a voice to the tongueless street.”
And then it was Saturday the 21st. Across Washington State, the country and the world, in other time zones and other political realities, millions of women and allies gathered to beat through the tongueless streets like long lines of poetry into stanzas of renewed hope. Millions embodied what African-American lesbian poet, essayist, activist, teacher Audre Lorde meant when she wrote “Your silence will not protect you.” After seriously considering making the trip to D.C., I chose to stay local and march in Olympia, and in doing so, little did I know that by the end of this historic day, as night transformed into early morning, the poetry of the people would buoy me as it always has, would help me recommit to hope and love. And that I would begin to write my own inauguration poem to the unforeseeable, fragile, exquisite future.
To read more about poetry’s inauguration in presidential politics, read Maria Popova’s “On Art and Government: The Poem Robert Frost Didn’t Read at JFK’s Inauguration” at https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/01/22/robert-frost-dedication-jfk-inauguration/
To read the full text of all the inaugural poems excerpted here, simply Google the name of the poet and “inauguration.”
To read more of the work of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Audre Lorde, consult Lawrence Ferlingetti’s Poetry as Insurgent Act and Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches.
Sandra Yannone’s poetry and book reviews have appeared nationally in Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, The Gay and Lesbian Review, Women’s Review of Books, Calyx: A Journal, Lambda Book Report, and Weave, among others. She currently is a Member of the Faculty and directs the Writing Center at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA.