February 10, 2021

Occasion Poetry: Inauguration and Politics

Like so many of you, I watched in awe as Amanda Gorman wove a spell with her words over a watching audience at President Biden’s Inauguration. And she was absolutely amazing this last Sunday performing at the Super Bowl. I will be discussing her work in a two-part blog post: this one in relation to political and occasional poetry, and in a couple of weeks through the lens of Women’s History Month and her connection to a local women’s writing group.

The history of inaugural poets is not as long as many may believe. There have only been four presidents to invite poets to read at their inauguration throughout history. But those who delivered poems fit into a larger tradition of occasion poetry.

The first poet with a recitation was Robert Frost who performed “The Gift Outright” at President John F. Kennedy’s Inauguration in 1961. He was originally supposed to recite another poem, titled “Dedication;” I’ve included some of my favorite lines from it here: “Firm in our free beliefs without dismay/ In any game the nations want to play./ A golden age of poetry and power/ Of which this noonday’s the beginning hour.”

Maya Angelou was the next, performing “On the Pulse of Morning” in honor of President Bill Clinton in 1993. Amanda Gorman cites her as a major writing influence, and once you compare their poems side by side, it makes sense. Here are a couple of lines from Angelou’s that stand out: “Lift up your hearts/ Each new hour holds new chances/ For a new beginning./ Do not be wedded forever/ To fear, yoked eternally/ To brutishness.” Miller Williams performed “Of History and Hope” at President Bill Clinton’s next inauguration in 1997. 

Following Clinton’s example, President Barack Obama also had two different poets perform at either of his inauguration ceremonies. The first Black President chose Elizabeth Alexander, who marked the momentous occasion in 2009 with “Praise Song for the Day,” acknowledging the sacrifices of their ancestors with lines such as: “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.// Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.” For his 2013 re-election, Obama chose Richard Blanco, a Latino poet to deliver the poem “One Today.” 

Finally, 2021 saw the youngest poet, Amanda Gorman, deliver the stunning “The Hill We Climb” for President Joe R. Biden’s inauguration. Back in 2017, she was also elected the first National Youth Poet Laureate. This young woman has been making poetic strides for years. And she discusses her personal background in a standout section from her inaugural poem I’d like to highlight: “Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed/ a nation that isn’t broken,/ but simply unfinished./ We the successors of a country and a time/ where a skinny Black girl/ descended from slaves and raised by a single mother/ can dream of becoming president/ only to find herself reciting for one.”

It seems strange that there are so few inaugural poets. But even though these are the official picks, there are so many others who have written about inaugurations, elections, and politics I’d like to highlight for a moment here.

Jericho Brown, the winner of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, published “Inaugural” through the New York Times. My favorite lines: “I would love to live/ In a country that lets me grow old./ I long. I long for that.”

Poets.org ran a contest to pick the best poems from students on the occasion of the 2021 inauguration. Obama’s inaugural poet, Richard Blanco, was the judge and selected three students to feature. First place went to seventeen-year-old Hallie Knight’s poem “To Rebuild;” second place went to Mina King’s “In Pursuit of Dawn;” and third place went to seventh-grader, Gabrielle Marshall’s “The Power of Hope Today.” Read these poems to tap into the thoughts of some of the young people in America today.

Pushing past the occasion of the inauguration, here are a couple of political poems or poetry collections I would recommend reading in tandem with those I listed above:

  1. “The Long Shadow of Lincoln: A Litany” by Carl Sandburg
  2. “All-American” by David Hernandez
  3. “What Kind of Times Are These” by Adrienne Rich
  4. “Boy Breaking Glass” by Gwendolyn Brooks
  5. “The Revolt of the Peasant Girls” by Anne Boyer
  6. “I Woke Up” by Jameson Fitzpatrick
  7. “A Small Needful Fact” by Ross Gay
  8. “American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assasins” by Terrence Hayes 
  9. “Don’t Call Us Dead” by Danez Smith
  10. “The Carrying: Poems” by Ada Limón

—Lauren Davila