Lessons from the Inaugural Poets


Maddie Porter, Ads Manager

Only six poems have been read at Presidential inaugurations. Robert Frost at John F. Kennedy’s 1961 Inaugural; Maya Angelou in 1993 and Miller Williams in 1997 both at Bill Clinton’s Inaugurals; Elizabeth Alexander in 2009 and Richard Blanco in 2013 at the ceremonies for Barack Obama; and Amanda Gorman this year for Joe Biden. 

Robert Frost’s “The Gift Outright,” laid out a brief history of the colonies and progression to the nation we are today. Read in a cadence characteristic of Frost and hopeful in spirit, it is an exemplary performance for American Politics. 

“Such as we were we gave ourselves outright

(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)

To the land vaguely realizing westward,

But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,

Such as she was, such as she would become.”

Maya Angelou’s “On the Pulse of Morning,” was a call to reflect on the woes of the past crimes committed by American people to American people, a conviction, a credo guiding the country forward. This poem is a poignant representation of America’s nefarious past, and pertinent with the resurrection of the racial justice movement. 

“The horizon leans forward,  

Offering you space to place new steps of change.  

Here, on the pulse of this fine day  

You may have the courage.”

Miller Williams, “Of History and Hope,” a consideration of the past and its determination of the future, a reminder of the values by which we strive to live, but don’t always reach. With a focus on children, Miller emphasizes the future, and thus the importance of setting our successors up for successes and prosperity. 

All this in the hands of children, eyes already set

on a land we never can visit—it isn’t there yet—

but looking through their eyes, we can see

what our long gift to them may come to be.

If we can truly remember, they will not forget.”

Elizabeth Alexander’s “Praise Song for the Day,” consisted of harmonious words encapsulating the harmony of people and their lives. A piece full of aspirations and ambitions; a poem for the people that shaped the country. 

“Say it plain: that many have died for this day.

Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,

who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,”

Richard Blanco’s “One Today,” ringing the routine days of individuals, signifying the importance of such individuals, fabricated a complex universe from one moment in time. Emphasizing the importance of each life to the world on which we live. 

“Thank the work of our hands: weaving steel into bridges, finishing one more report for the boss on time, stitching another wound or uniform, the first brush stroke on a portrait, or the last floor on the Freedom Tower jutting into the sky that yields to our resilience.”

Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb.” She glows in the sun cast down on the capitol, her words incandescent, sinking into my psyche as what could and should be. An altruistic celebration of the place she held at the poem, and young black woman, teeming with intention and ambition. Her convictions of racial and sexual prejudice in a cadence of urgency, struggles, and dreams. The cascade of emotion ineffable- I’ve become an absolute votary of poetry.

“When day comes we ask ourselves,

where can we find light in this never-ending shade?

The loss we carry,

a sea we must wade.

We’ve braved the belly of the beast,

We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace,

and the norms and notions

of what just is

isn’t always justice.

And yet the dawn is ours

before we knew it.

Somehow we do it.

Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed

a nation that isn’t broken,

but simply unfinished.”

So few inaugural poets have spoken, but each speaks in strides of the country they want to see, and this is what is important about the progression of politics. I am, not so casually, a skeptic of the executive branch and openly anti-capitalist, yet the abundant hope in each poem strikes a hankering for betterment and the belief that it is undoubtedly possible. To be completely honest, I was unaware that poems are somewhat of a tradition, although a young one, but now I long for poetry to be more prevalent. The influence of writing is undeniable, and as the national anthem provokes patriotism for most, the potent emotions of inaugural poems have enlivened hope for our democracy and forged a path on which younger generations can guide the nation to prosperity.