Room 313

adventures in teaching creative writing

Inaugural Poets

Four years ago I remember Elizabeth Alexander reading her poem “Praise Song for the Day” at President Obama’s first inauguration. My first reaction to the poem was a little like this:

mckayladisappointed

As I reread and studied the poem, though, I grew to like it more and more because it speaks to our identity as Americans. Just hearing a poem read aloud once is not the same as pouring over it on the page. Of course, I’ve heard poems before that I liked right from the start, but sometimes poems grow on you.

Alexander is only the fourth poet to read at a presidential inauguration. And earlier today, the fifth inaugural poet, Richard Blanco, read his poem. According to The New York Times, Blanco wrote three poems for the inauguration, and Obama’s team selected the one for him to read to the nation. (I want to know what the other two poems were!)

The inaugural poets and their poems are:

  1. Robert Frost, “The Gift Outright” & “Dedication” (Kennedy, 1961)
  2. Maya Angelou, “On the Pulse of Morning” (Clinton, 1993)
  3. Miller Williams, “Of History and Hope” (Clinton, 1997)
  4. Elizabeth Alexander, “Praise Song for the Day” (Obama, 2009)
  5. Richard Blanco, “One Today” (Obama, 2013)

Frost is the most well-known of the five, one of our nation’s greatest poets. Kennedy asked Frost if he would recite a new poem for his inauguration, but suggested he use “The Gift Outright,” a poem he’d already written, as a backup. Kennedy even went so far as to suggest a revision of the final line of the poem. Frost wrote “Dedication” specifically for the occasion, but the the sunny, snowy day kept him from being able to read the words (Frost was 86 at the time), so he recited “The Gift Outright” from memory, including the modified, final line. That’s why Frost has two poems listed.

Angelou is best known for her memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which I still haven’t read. I own a copy. Maybe I’ll read it this year.

Williams was an Arkansas man like Clinton. I have not read any of his other poems, and I don’t think I’ve come across any of his other poetry in anthologies or literary journals.

Alexander was the second black woman chosen as an inaugural poet. She has quite a few poems available on her website. You can also follow her on Twitter.

Blanco as a gay Latino expands the diversity of the inaugural poet. Named after Richard Nixon, at 44, Blanco is also the youngest poet ever selected. He’s on Twitter as well, and some of his poems, including a chapbook, are available online. Here’s a word cloud of Blanco’s “One Today” I created with Wordle:

One_Today_USA_colors

During this semester, try incorporating one the inaugural poems or poets into one of your lessons. April is National Poetry Month, so that’s a good time to introduce your students to one of our nation’s historic poets. I’ll probably use “One Today” in my sophomore English classroom. I’ll post about how it goes when the time comes.

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