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Poetry and the Presidential Inauguration

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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; 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.

Comments (15)

  1. I’ve never been comfortable with the recitation of a poem at a presidential inauguration. It seems as if the venue — huge crowds on the Capitol steps, on the Mall, at television screens — is just too enormous for the rhythmic confessions enclosed within a poem. There is little chance that the one (the poet) will connect with the many.

  2. To me,this would be the perfect time that for a poem to be read. We can sing in front of thousands, yet silence ourselves in front of millions? You don’t have to connect to all, you only have to plant the seed in one. IMHO

  3. I’m just curious why the designated poet laureate didn’t read at presidential inauguration. If the incoming president preferred another poet, did that offend the “sitting” laureate?

  4. I am a poet artist, I’m trying to submit a piece for consideration for Joe Biden s day.
    I believe it is current and relivent.
    Thx for ur time
    Chef Michael Richardson

    • Dear Mr. Richardson,

      I’ve added your question into our Ask a Librarian system. I will be in touch with you soon with a more complete response.

      Best wishes,


  5. Thoughts of a Man…. something just as good…or better.

    Stars in his eyes, heart on his sleeve, he was born. Moved by words even he was surprised at the strength of tears. Sensetivity was a Wild Card that destiny delt.
    Sun’s explode, stars implode, his first love crash an burn. When death didn’t come, broken he simply gathered the shards of his heart an mended them with strong tears of resolve.
    He thinks,…..

    I would love to share the thoughts of this man. If there is an interest. It 1992came to me in a dream to reach out. I wrote this in 1992. After the convention it came together. I hope this doesn’t fall on deaf ears.

    Chef Michael Richardson

  6. How can one’s piece be considered for the presidential inauguration? I’ve paid close attention and penned this moment I believe. Would love for my piece to at least be considered. Many thanks.

    • Dear Dan,

      I’ve added your question into our Ask a Librarian system. I will be in touch with you soon with a more complete response.

      Best wishes,


  7. Hello

    Are you affiliated with the selection process of selecting speakers/poets for the inauguration?

    Please email the answer in case I lose the link to this particular post?


    • Dear J.C.

      I’ve added your question into our Ask a Librarian system. I will be in touch with you soon with a more complete response.

      Best wishes,


  8. Can you please convey a recommendation that Jay Parini, Vermont poet, be selected to read a poem for the inauguration of Joe Biden as President? Jay is from Scranton, PA. His mother once babysat for Mr. Biden!

  9. I am attempting to submit two poems for the Biden Inauguration.

  10. On my opinion, an appropriate poem reaches hearts and minds of many who might otherwise let the words of prose pass by without reflecting on their real meaning to themselves and all of humanity. Consider it art, as is a song or painting or well-crafted public address. Some will remember more of the inaugural address, the benediction, the song, the poem. Prose and poetry touch a cord in all of us, speaking to our inner natures of complex thought—curiosity, confusion, hope or loss of hope, disappointment, fear, courage—all working in tandem to wake us from slumber with a gentle, humble yet strong, tingling of our senses.

  11. Why are poems recited at inaugural ceremonies?

  12. why do they have poets for the inaugurations ? what does it mean and represent ?

Comments are closed.