As the political fanfare expires, we can look to the poets to prepare for the inauguration. Although the tradition is not a staple of American politics (President Kennedy started the tradition with Robert Frost in 1961), we hope that our president, the poet will consider to uphold his decision to include poetry in his inauguration to a second term.
The history of the inaugural poet is spotty at best. After Kennedy’s initial selection of Robert Frost as the first inaugural poet, it wasn’t until nearly half a century later when Bill Clinton rekindled the poetry commission for his inauguration. He chose the iconic Maya Angelou, who swept the audience with her pathos and gravitas. For Clinton’s second term, he chose a lesser-known poet, Miller Williams (father to country singer, Lucinda Williams) in 1997. Then, it wasn’t until Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009 that we witnessed another poet at the podium: Elizabeth Alexander. Her poem, “Praise Song for the Day” promised to unite with stark imagery:
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.
We would love to see the inauguration poem become a true tradition of the United States. Whom might Obama choose in 2013? Whom would you like to see speaking in verse to the world?
Robert Frost, Although it was not what he planned to recite, due the sun’s glare and weather conditions, he recited “The Gift Outright” (1961):
Maya Angelou, “On the Pulse of the Morning” (1993):
(Video has since been taken down, sadly)
Elizabeth Alexander, “Praise Song for the Day” (2009):
About the Author: Abigail Browning
Abigail Browning, Founder and Managing Editor, a native of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, received her MFA in Poetry at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Abigail has poems either published or forthcoming in the Yemassee Journal Online, The Greensboro Review, Linebreak, and RHINO Poetry. In addition, she was honored to receive the Amon Liner Poetry Award, the Noel Callow/Academy of American Poets’ Prize, and was a finalist for the Linda Flowers NC Arts Prize. She also has a passion for jazz music and dance, and teaches swing-era dances in her free time: www.abigailbrowning.com.