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Inaugural Poetry – Robert Frost and Maya Angelou

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The following guest post, part of our “Teacher’s Corner” series, is by Rebecca Newland, a Fairfax County Public Schools Librarian and former Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress.

[Robert Frost, poet who is 85 years old today] / World-Telegram photo by Walter Albertin.
[Robert Frost, poet who is 85 years old today] / World-Telegram photo by Walter Albertin, 1959.
January 20, 1961, may be best remembered as the date of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration as President of the United States. Those who love poetry may also remember it for Robert Frost’s recitation, the first by a poet for an inaugural ceremony.

President-elect Kennedy asked Frost to recite the poem “The Gift Outright” unless the poet planned to write a poem especially for the occasion. Frost did, in fact, write a new poem for the day entitled “Dedication.” However, when the time came to read, the wind and sun’s glare made this impossible, though Frost made a valiant attempt. Instead, he reverted to “The Gift Outright,” which he knew by heart.

Together, Frost’s two poems—one written for the occasion and one not—provide an opportunity for students to consider the importance of context and subject matter. Pair students to read both poems without revealing which one Frost wrote for the occasion and which one he recited. Ask them to decide which one they believe was written for the inauguration and list reasons why they believe so. Match pairs that choose different poems. (If none choose “The Gift Outright,” skip the next step.) Pairs should try to convince each other that they have chosen the correct poem. Reveal which was which before asking students to complete a closer reading of the poems.

Ask students to discuss the following in their pairs:

  • What messages do the poems have for the newly elected President?
  • What is the tone of each poem? What details make you say this?
  • What differences are there in the subject and theme of the poems?
  • Regardless of which you chose as the poem he wrote for the inauguration, which do you feel best fit the occasion? Why?

Engage students in a whole class discussion of the two poems.

The next inaugural poem is “On the Pulse of Morning,” written and read by Maya Angelou for President Clinton. Listen to the poem read by Angelou on January 20, 1993. As they listen, ask students to mark passages of interest on their own copy of the poem. Ask:

  • What messages does the poem have for the newly elected President?
  • What is the tone of the poem? What details make you say this?
  • What similarities are there between Frost’s two poems and Angelou’s?

To extend the experience, ask students to read one of the three other poems read at presidential inaugurations:

  • Of History and Hope,” by Miller Williams for President Clinton’s 1997 inauguration
  • Praise Song for the Day,” by Elizabeth Alexander for President Obama’s 2009 inauguration
  • One Today,” by Richard Blanco for President Obama’s 2013 inauguration