Inaugural Poets

There has been some controversy over poet laureates recently – the NY Times ran a piece on Monday partly inspired by the dust-up in North Carolina over their state poet laureate. This coverage and a recent trip to the John F. Kennedy presidential library cleared up some misconceptions I had about the post of United States Poet Laureate. I thought one of the jobs of the U.S. Poet Laureate (more properly the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress) was to read a poem at the U.S. Presidential Inauguration. It turns out those two things have almost nothing to do with one another (other than poetry). In 1961, JFK was the first president to invite a poet to recite a poem at a presidential inauguration and he asked Robert Frost to read “The Gift Outright.” Robert Frost actually composed a new poem based on “The Gift Outright” especially for the inauguration but wound up not reading it due to poor lighting and recited “The Gift Outright” from memory. Robert Frost was the United States Poet Laureate from 1958-1959, but he is the only inaugural poet to have held that position.

 

inauguralpoetry

The breakdown: there have been five Inaugural Poets – three men and two women. With the exception of “The Gift Outright” and “One Today,” the other three poems were, in general, critically panned, although Maya Angelou’s appearance as the first Inaugural Poet in over 30 years and her recitation of “On the Pulse of Morning” led to increased international fame and recognition for her poetry. I find it interesting to see how the words and tenor of the inaugural poems have changed – I made word art using Wordle of Robert Frost’s poems “The Gift Outright” (A) and “For JFK his Inauguration” (B) to compare to Maya Angelou’s “On the Pulse of Morning” (C) and Richard Blanco’s “One Today” (D). Words like “possessed”, “land”, “glory”, and “power” dominate Frost’s poems while the more recent poetry has environmental and family words. An interesting commentary on our national vocabulary and concerns…

Links to all of the poems:

The Gift Outright – Robert Frost

For John F. Kennedy his Inauguration – Robert Frost

On the Pulse of Morning – Maya Angelou

Of History and Hope – Miller Williams

Praise Song of the Day – Elizabeth Alexander

One Today – Richard Blanco

 

 

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