Poetry and the Presidency

“…I must study politics and war so that our sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy…in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry and music…”

John Adams

I wonder if John Adams would be disappointed that today’s inauguration looks more like a battlefield than an artist’s celebration.  After 240 years, he would have preferred we were more focused on the art of beauty than the art of war. It is good, none the less, that the arts have found a home in our quadrennial national renewal of leadership.

Robert Frost was the first poet to speak at a presidential inauguration which was John Kennedy’s in 1961. When the 87-year-old Laureate stood on the podium to share his poemDedication”  he was unable to read it due to the glare of the sun, so instead he recited a poem he had written 15 years earlier, “The Gift Outright”.

The land was ours before we were the land’s 
She was our land more than a hundred years 
Before we were her people. She was ours…”

Maya Angelou read her poem, “On the Pulse of Morning” at William Clinton’s first Inauguration in 1993.  Her poem sought to trace the long history of the land upon which America was built and that she hoped to find a message of unity that we could still use today.

“…Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the
grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes, into
Your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope
Good morning.

Later today, 22-year-old Amanda Gorman will read her poem, “The Hill We Climb.”

Ms. Gorman, the nation’s first National Youth Poet Laureate has written poems for The Boston Pops Orchestra and for the inauguration of Harvard’s latest president from where she graduated college.

She shared with reporters that she has been in contact with the most recent poets to speak at inaugurations, Elizabeth Alexander and Richard Blanco and that her poem, which she hopes will inspire hope and unity, will not turn away from recognizing the discord that exists in today’s America. Here is a portion from her 2017 poem, In this Place (An American Lyric).

…There’s a poem in this place—
a poem in America
a poet in every American
who rewrites this nation, who tells
a story worthy of being told on this minnow of an earth
to breathe hope into a palimpsest of time—
a poet in every American
who sees that our poem penned
doesn’t mean our poem’s end.

There’s a place where this poem dwells—
it is here, it is now, in the yellow song of dawn’s bell
where we write an American lyric
we are just beginning to tell.

Her poetry reading will last about 6 minutes. I expect that John Adams would be interested in hearing the voice of this young woman. After all, he fought those battles for freedom so we could hear her voice celebrate it.

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