Officially, there have been four: Robert Frost, Maya Angelou, Miller Williams, and Elizabeth Alexander.
Frost recited The Gift Outright from memory at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. It’s a poem about place as identity, and a nationalism that comes from possession, from staking claims on what belongs to us because we bled for it. It is not a poem that acknowledges anyone who lived upon this land before the European colonists.
Bill Clinton had a poet at each of his inaugurations. Maya Angelou read On the Pulse of Morning, a poem that gathers all of Frost’s forgotten creeds and races and invites them to a “Tree planted by a River/which will not be moved.” It ends:
Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes, into
Your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
I like Miller Williams’s Of History and Hope, read at Clinton’s second inauguration, not just because I’m a sucker for messages about what we will leave for our children, but also because it acknowledges a complicated national history that we are a part of whenever we make a pledge or sing an anthem:
We have memorized America,
how it was born and who we have been and where.
In ceremonies and silence we say the words,
telling the stories, singing the old songs.
We like the places they take us. Mostly we do.
The great and all the anonymous dead are there.
I like the thud of reckoning there.
When Elizabeth Alexander read at Barack Obama’s inauguration, she arguably had the largest audience that poetry has ever, or will ever, have. “This is like, poetry goes to Hollywood, poetry makes a movie,” said poet Tony Hoagland. Was I moved or inspired? Not really. I felt like it was a poem for the Joe Plumbers, a revival of the same cliches that drove everyone crazy during debate season: struggle, safety, “something better down the road.”
My favorite inaugural poem is the one that was read the night before Jimmy Carter’s inauguration: The Strength of Fields by James Dickey. In it, Dickey gives us the message of all the poets who had come before him, and all who would come after: we are a nation of many different people; let us be united, let us look each other in the eye. But he does it with unparalleled power, grace, and mystery. The poem concludes:
Lord, let me shake
With purpose. Wild hope can always spring
From tended strength. Everything is in that.
That and nothing but kindness. More kindness, dear Lord
Of the renewing green. That is where it all has to start:
With the simplest things. More kindness will do nothing less
Than save every sleeping one
And night-walking one
My life belongs to the world. I will do what I can.