Inaugural Parading out the Poet

Ever since I listened to Richard Blanco deliver his poem during the televised inauguration of President Obama on January 21, I have been mulling over the place of poets and poetry in American society.  What overall impact can injection of a written-for-hire poem have on the expansion of poetry’s readership?  After several weeks of digesting Blanco’s poem and other poems written for presidential inaugurations since President Kennedy established the precedent in 1961, and President Clinton revived the custom , my answer is “none.”

None of these inaugural poems represent the poet’s finest works. Fortunately, Robert Frost never read the fusty “Dedication,” 78 lines of awful Augustan couplets that he intended to read as prologue to “The Gift Outright.”  A gust of common sense must have blown through his doddering mind at the last moment and he used the excuse of sun’s glare on the page to skip reading it and proceeded directly to reciting from memory the mercifully short and sweet “The Gift Outright,” the poem he had written years ago. In 1977 President Carter commissioned James Dickey to write an inaugural poem not actually recited at the inauguration but relegated to a post-inauguration party. Dickey’s poem “The Strength of Fields” is forty-nine disjointed lines, too obscure for a poem addressed to the public.  In 1993 Maya Angelou offered “The Pulse of Morning,” much too long, even if the 107 lines are short, to keep an audience from yawning.  In 1997 Clinton chose for his second inauguration the Arkansan poet Miller Williams, whose “Of History and Hope” I have to unkindly call a bad poem.  I rather like as the best of the batch of inaugural offerings Elizabeth Alexander’s “Praise Song for the Day,” delivered for President’s Obama’s first inauguration in 2009.  However, reviewers disagree with me. Written in simple tercets, 14 altogether, her poem ends with a one-line stanza; it is not overblown and just the right length for the occasion.

In 2013, Blanco’s poem “One Today” has a unity of structure, a progression from morning to evening, and a theme that rings well with Obama’s repetition of the word “together,” the last word also of his inaugural address. Although the poem has moments that sparkle, the Whitmanesque listing grows tedious. The poem could have been better with more concision, cutting out the lackluster and preserving what images are fresh to produce a shorter, more pungent poem.

What does it matter that these inaugural poems are forgettable? What matters (to echo Dana Gioia’s 1991 essay “Can Poetry Matter?”)  is that poetry did matter for at least four American presidents in modern history, to the extent they considered it worthy of a place at their inaugurations. Poets are not pop stars, more frequently heard at State occasions, yet to parade a poet on the Capitol steps is wondrous for a lover of poetry to behold.  It has that effect upon me, but does it matter at all to my fellow Americans that a poem is written and recited especially for this historic event? I think not. I think at this juncture, when the poet approaches the podium, the viewer in his living room gets up from his chair and goes to open the refrigerator.



2 responses to this post.

  1. I couldn’t agree more. I would rather have had someone recite Dorothy Parker! It would be impossible for wit, irony or (dare I say) depth to be a part of an inauguration poem… darkness would have to be summoned so that glints of epiphany could shine through… and by this I don’t mean the stuff Ms. Angelou ( a fine human being, but not a very good poet) writes. [BTW- have you ever seen the spoof of her reading her poetry on “The Simpsons”?] Good poetry requires that something unexpected happen so that THINKING can become reflective, so that basic emotions can be directed toward new objects and subjects. So that we can FEEL old emotions in new contexts or strange mixtures of emotions in old contexts. Nation-states and empires require panegyrics which are not reflective, except in the sense that an ornamental spangle or a highly polished suit of armor is reflective! Great poetry breaks the listener open. Americans don’t want to be broken open. This is a sentimental empire… all empires are sentimental… which reminds me of a very good book “The Sorrows of the Ancient Romans”. We weep when triggered by the cliches (cue the John Williams music). This is a mass-cultural set of formal conventions. Great poetry does something off-kilter and ultimately metamorphic with forms. Obama should have asked Sharon Olds…. LOL!!!


  2. It’s true that empires want panegyrics so it’s impossible for me to expect an inaugural poem to rise above the banality of political oratory today. I’m still heartened with the effort to elevate something in the guise of poetry in front of a mass audience, although the poems have no clothes. I keep saying to myself “Surprise me some day, erstwhile presidentially-picked poet.” Thanks, Jason, for your always welcome and insightful comments.


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