I have been planning to contribute this post on inaugural poetry since January, but have held off on writing it because I wanted to see Amanda Gorman's inaugural performance first. And what a performance that was! Gorman, our nation's first-ever National Youth Poet Laureate, made history yesterday with a gorgeous occasional poem titled "The Hill We Climb," written for the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris. If you missed it yesterday (or if you just need to watch it over and over again, as I did), you can view her performance here. Gorman's clear-eyed view of "the cracks that need to be filled" in our history, the real problems we face and have ever faced, coupled with a message of aspiration, love, and upward struggle, struck exactly the right note for our nation at this point of calamity and simultaneous hope for change.
The Poetry Center staff just about fell out of our chairs cheering on Amanda Gorman yesterday (see our social media for swoons). We love seeing poetry on the national inauguration stage in general--and in fact we played a role in the very first Presidential inaugural poem, read by Robert Frost at the swearing-in of John F. Kennedy, Jr. in 1961. When Frost came to Tucson to speak at the Poetry Center's founding in November 1960, the story goes, then-Congressman Stewart Udall persuaded him to accept JFK's invitation to write and read a poem for the upcoming inaugural ceremonies. Frost wrote a poem called "Dedication" for the occasion, but at the ceremony, the sun proved too bright for him to be able to see the words. He instead recited "The Gift Outright" from memory.
Since Kennedy, three other presidents have included poetry in their inaugural celebrations. Bill Clinton's inaugurations in 1993 and 1997 featured performances by Maya Angelou and Miller Williams; Barack Obama's ceremonies in 2009 and 2013 featured performances by Elizabeth Alexander and Richard Blanco. The Academy of American Poets has assembled a comprehensive list of inaugural poems, and the Poetry Center Library also collects inaugural poetry in chapbook form where available.
Inaugural poems are, by all accounts, tough to write. They must answer the needs of a specific moment in history, acknowledge the sweep of history, and point to the future--all in the span of a performance that lasts about ten minutes. It's a joy and a gift to read the work of the poets who have risen to this challenge; their words take on new resonances as the years progress. I think of lines from Elizabeth Alexander's 2009 inaugural poem:
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.
Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here...
in conversation with the poem Amanda Gorman shared with us yesterday, her hope-filled assertion that the "nation isn't broken, but simply unfinished," her closing promise to all of us:
The new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light,
if only we're brave enough to see it.
If only we're brave enough to be it.
I hope that we may all light each other's way in the work that lies ahead. A Happy New Year to you all, poetry friends.