Poetry and the Presidential Inauguration

During the past several weeks the Library has received inquiries through our Ask a Librarian service about the history of inaugural poetry and whether a poem will be read at President-elect Trump’s inauguration on Friday, January 20.

The official inaugural program issued by the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies does not mention the inclusion of any poets or poems at President-elect Trump’s inauguration, nor has the Committee issued a statement indicating that a poem would be read at the ceremonies. At the time of this post’s publication, then, it appears there are no plans to feature an inaugural poem.

The history of inaugural poetry is a relatively short one. Only five poets have read or recited poems at U.S. presidential inaugurations, and four of them did so within the past twenty-five years. Here is a complete list of inaugural poets and poems:

  • Robert Frost recited “The Gift Outright” (text) at John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural. Frost recited the poem from memory after he was unable to read the text of the poem he’d written for the inauguration, “Dedication” (text), because of the sun’s glare upon the snow-covered ground.
  • Maya Angelou read “On the Pulse of Morning” (text; video) at Bill Clinton’s 1993 inaugural.
  • Miller Williams read “Of History and Hope” (text; video) at Bill Clinton’s 1997 inaugural.
  • Elizabeth Alexander read “Praise Song for the Day” (text; video) at Barack Obama’s 2009 inaugural.
  • Richard Blanco read “One Today” (text and video) at Barack Obama’s 2013 inaugural.

All five inaugural poets have given readings at the Library of Congress or at Library-sponsored events. For instance, 2009 inaugural poet Elizabeth Alexander participated in a 1994 reading in the Library’s Mumford Room, and in 2010 engaged in a reading and conversation at the National Book Festival on the Mall in Washington, DC.

The final poem Alexander read at the Book Festival was, fittingly, “Praise Song for the Day.” However, listening to the reading I was also struck by several lines in the penultimate poem, “Rally,” that I thought were appropriate to share this week.

Before reading her poem to the Book Festival audience, Alexander explained the poem’s origins and intent:

This poem was written after watching an Obama rally in Miami in October of 2008. And the poem, it starts with that image but it is not about that moment or about that person, hopefully. That was not my intent. My intent was that it would meditate on something larger than the moment but start in the moment.

Indeed, “Rally” begins by referencing a specific historical moment but concludes with a more expansive vision of hoped-for unity that continues to resonate today:

Then the crowd made noise that gathered and grew
until it was loud and was loud as the sea.

What it meant or would mean was not yet fixed
nor could be, though human beings ever tilt toward we.

(from The Best American Poetry 2011, p. 1)

If you have any questions about poetry at presidential inaugurations, please contact us through our Ask a Librarian service and we’ll be happy to answer them.

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