Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Poets of Inaugurations Past

Since we are mere hours away from Barack Obama's inauguration (CNN has a very helpful countdown clock in the corner of its television channel if you are interested), I thought that a quick look back at poets of inaugurations past may be of interest. As many people know, Elizabeth Alexander is tapped to compose and read a poem at inauguration. Although this seems like a gesture steeped in tradition, having a inaugural poet isn't all that common. In fact, according to the New York Times, Alexander is only the fourth inaugural poet. However, she is in good company; her predecessors are Robert Frost, Maya Angelou (Clinton's first inauguration), and Miller Williams (Clinton's second inauguration).

JFK was the first president to have a poet read at the inauguration. He famously asked Robert Frost, the premier American poet of the day (and perhaps of all time), to read "The Gift Outright" at the Kennedy inauguration. Frost, who had a keen mind of his own, composed a poem called "Dedication." The poem's ending quite clearly shows Frost's admiration of Kennedy:
"It makes the prophet in us all presage
The glory of a next Augustan age
Of a power leading from its strength and pride,
Of young ambition eager to be tried,
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."
Unfortunately, the sun was blindingly bright upon the snow, so Frost, who was 87 at the time, was unable to read his poem. Undeterred, he recited "The Gift Outright" from memory. Frost's handwritten copy, which he gave to Kennedy, is on display at the Kennedy Library.