Inauguration Poetry

Agreed, Amanda Gorman’s reading of her poem was the highpoint of the Biden/Harris inauguration. ‘The Hill We Climb’ is clearly inspirational, a poetic version of a political speech that like Biden’s inaugural address identified the malaise America finds itself in while not shaming by naming the last occupant of the White House. Gorman’s poem was beautifully delivered and appropriate in the context of place and ceremony.

Reading it on the page, however, was a less satisfying experience for me. The repetition of ideas expressed through different analogies and the length of the work took away some of the sparkle. Having said that, I’ll quote the passage that struck me as the most valuable for our times:

We will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation because we know our inaction and inertia will be the inheritance of the next generation.
Our blunders become their burdens.

It may have been written for America, battered from the last presidency and threatened by domestic terrorism, but it applies to all citizens of our planet. We are all stricken with an environmental crisis for which inaction is no longer an option. I also like this passage’s cathedral thinking – a willingness to work on project that we know will not be completed in our lifetimes.

The final stanza of Gorman’s poem, with its repetition of ‘we will rise from…’ I assume to be a nod to Maya Angelou’s ‘Still I Rise,’ a more famous poem than ‘On the Pulse of the Morning,’ which she wrote and performed (she was truly a performer) for Bill Clinton’s inauguration.

Common to these inauguration poems, including Richard Blanco’s ‘One Today’, read at President Obama’s swearing in, are the references to different states and parts of the country with their varied landscapes. A bit of ‘American The Beautiful’ meets Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land is Your Land.’ Which I think is a shame, making the works appear more derivative than intertextual.

Perhaps one of the best inauguration poems wasn’t intended for the ceremony at all. For Kennedy’s inauguration Robert Frost struggled with sun in his eyes and the wind flapping the pages of his specially written poem. He soon gave up and  recited from memory ‘The Gift Outright,’ which he knew was a favourite of JFK’s. First published in the 1940s, ‘The Gift Outright,’ unlike the other mentioned poems, is short and doesn’t go from sea to shining sea. It recounts the founding of America by the early colonists, who claimed the land, but didn’t actually possess it until they fought for it and created their own government. The poem ends fittingly with the idea that America’s future lies in the creation of its own history, stories and art:

To the land vaguely realizing westward, 
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced, 
Such as she was, such as she will become.

Postscript: The last president didn’t have any poetry at his inauguration. But in this way he wasn’t unique or his usual un-presidential self. No Republican has ever had a poet read at his inauguration. Even poetry is partisan in America.

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