“Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Percy Shelley penned this famous phrase in his “A Defence of Poetry.” Husband to Frankenstein author Mary Shelley and a poet in his own right, Percy Shelley reminds us that poetry “awakens and enlarges the mind itself by rendering it the receptacle of a thousand unapprehended combinations of thought.”
Poetry, as with all art, shapes the world by broadening the horizons of those who read it.
Poets may be unacknowledged legislators, but a few US Presidents have hinted at the importance of art and its influence on the political realities of the day. All Presidents are honored with music and fanfare, but at just six inaugurations have poets–most recently Amanda Gorman–taken the stage.
Robert Frost, 1961
The very first inaugural poem was not intended to be. After John F. Kennedy asked Robert Frost to read at his inauguration, Frost responded by telegram, “I may not be equal to [this honor] but I can accept it for my cause – the arts, poetry, now for the first time taken into the affairs of statesmen.”
He composed an original poem for the occasion, “Dedication.” But the morning of January 20, 1961 was sunny, and the glare from the snow made it impossible for Frost’s 86 year old eyes to read the page.
But Frost had promises to keep, so he recited from memory, “The Gift Outright,” a poem he had described as “a history of the United States in a dozen lines of blank verse.”
Maya Angelou, 1993
On his decision to ask Maya Angelou to write a poem for his inauguration, Bill Clinton said, “I didn’t really think about anybody else.” She lived from ages three to fourteen in Stamps, Arkansas, just a few miles from Hope, where the future President was born.
With her deep, swooping voice, she read, “On the Pulse of the Morning,” a poem that drinks deeply of gospel songs and scripture, and speaks to the diversity and hope of America.
Each of you, a bordered country,
Delicate and strangely made proud,
Yet thrusting perpetually under siege.
Your armed struggles for profit
Have left collars of waste upon
My shore, currents of debris upon my breast.
Yet today I call you to my riverside,
If you will study war no more. Come,
Clad in peace, and I will sing the songs
The Creator gave to me when I and the
Tree and the rock were one.
Before cynicism was a bloody sear across your
Brow and when you yet knew you still
The River sang and sings on.
Miller Williams, 1997
Hoxie, Arkansas native Miller Williams read at Bill Clinton’s second inauguration his poem, “Of History and Hope.” The plain-spoken Williams taught English and Creative Writing at the University of Arkansas, where Clinton ( both Bill and Hillary Rodham) also taught.
“Of Hope and History” looks to the past, not to lament our errors, but to show a path toward a better future.
But how do we fashion the future? Who can say how
except in the minds of those who will call it Now?
The children. The children. And how does our garden grow?
With waving hands—oh, rarely in a row—
and flowering faces. And brambles, that we can no longer allow.
Elizabeth Alexander, 2009
Sharing the stage with Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Aretha Franklin, and her father–who wore his button saved from the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Elizabeth Alexander read, “Praise Song for the Day.” The poem reflects on the struggles of a nation and its people and glorifies those who persevered.
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,
picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.
Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.
Richard Blanco, 2013
“One Today,” a poem by the first Latino, the first immigrant, and the first openly gay inaugural poet examines our unity through America. We all share “one sun,” “one ground,” “one light,” “one sky,” “one moon.” Blanco reminds us that each day we step forward, even when it feels those steps are small.
We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always—home,
always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country—all of us—
facing the stars
hope—a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it—together
Amanda Gorman, 2021
“We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace,” 22 year old Amanda Gorman recited, with a graceful gesture evoking the balance between the concepts we tend to imagine. “The Hill We Climb” was written–and rewritten–during the most tumultuous election season perhaps in our history.
As the National Youth Poet Laureate was composing her inaugural poem, domestic terrorists stormed the Capitol in outrage over the legitimate election results. While men and women bearing Trump and Confederate battle flags filed away from Capitol Hill, Gorman continued writing. “While democracy can be periodically delayed,” she wrote, “It can never be permanently defeated.”
She doesn’t gloss over the pain of the previous weeks and years. “Where can we find light / In this never-ending shade? / The loss we carry, a sea we must wade.” But she also offers a hope for a future that depends on our united courage. “For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it. / If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true.
That even as we grieved, we grew.
That even as we hurt, we hoped.
That even as we tired, we tried.
That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious.
Not because we will never again know defeat, but because we will never again sow division.