Poets On the Pulse of Presidents

“Lift up your eyes upon 
This day breaking for you. 
Give birth again 
To the dream.”

— Maya Angelou, “On the Pulse of the Morning”

The passing of poet Maya Angelou today offers plenty of room for reflections of all kinds. Among them, an appreciation of poets praising presidents.

There haven’t been that many at inaugural ceremonies such as the one where Angelou performed at the swearing-in of President Bill Clinton.

The domain of modern-day inaugural poetry happens to belong to Democrats, too.

Take a tour of the poetic paths chosen at inaugurations starting with Robert Frost, in this slide-show of presidential swearings-in from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama.

Here is a summary as well:

Although poetry sounds perfectly at home in modern-day presidential inaugurations, it was nearly 200 years before an invited poet took part in the swearing-in ceremony. Robert Frost joined John F. Kennedy at his inauguration in 1961 with a tale of American independence, “The Gift Outright.” Frost spoke of a certain destiny: “The land was ours before we were the land’s.”

It was not until President Jimmy Carter’s inauguration in 1977 that a poet returned to the inaugural ceremonies. Yet James Dickey wasn’t reading at the actual inauguration — rather at a Kennedy Center gala following it. He read “The Strength of Fields.” Dickey: ``My life belongs to the world. I will do what I can.”

Fast-forward 16 more years to President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration, in 1993, when Maya Angelou read a poem written for the occasion: “On the Pulse of Morning.” Angelou said: “Today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully, come, you may stand upon my back and face your distant destiny.”

Clinton, who came from Hope, Arkansas, brought Miller Willams to his second  inauguration, in 1997. The poet read “Of History and Hope.” “We have memorized America, how it was born and who we have been and where ceremonies and silence we say the words, telling the stories, singing the old songs.”

President Barack Obama invited Elizabeth Alexander to his first inauguration, in . In 2009.  She also wrote one for the occasion: “Praise Song for the Day, Praise Song for Struggle.” At the swearing-in of the first African-American president, Alexander said: “Say it plain, that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of.”

Obama brought Richard Blanco to his second inaugural ceremony, in 2013. Blanco read: “One Today.” The poet said: “We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always—home, always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop and every window, of one country—all of us—facing the stars hope—a new constellation waiting for us to map it, waiting for us to name it—together.”



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