Inaugural Poets: Their Role and Relevance Throughout History
Amanda Gorman, a 22-year-old Black poet and Harvard University alumna, has made history by becoming the youngest inaugural poet, selected by President Joe Biden. Gorman has read for university events, holidays, and the Boston Pop Orchestra, making the inauguration the latest public forum for her to share the visionary, change-making nature of poetry.
“The power of poetry is everything for me. Poetry is an art form, but it’s also a weapon and an instrument. It’s the ability to make ideas that have been known, felt and said,” Gorman, who is also a former National Youth Poet Laureate, recently proclaimed in an interview with PBS.
Among these many important ideas, Gorman prioritizes unity in her influential poem “The Hill We Climb.”
“While democracy can be periodically delayed, / it can never be permanently defeated,” Gorman writes. “In this truth, in this faith we trust. / For while we have our eyes on the future, / History has its eyes on us.”
Just as this excerpt suggests, Gorman’s role as an inaugural poet establishes her as part of a literary lineage that also encompasses Robert Frost, Maya Angelou, Miller Williams, Elizabeth Blanco, and Richard Blanco. Incoming presidents rely on these passionate literary figures to spur reflection, inspiration, and patriotism among United States citizens. Here’s a timeline of their memorable and poignant inaugural readings.
1961: “The Gift Outright” by Robert Frost, recited at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration
As the first inaugural poem, “The Gift Outright” reflects on America’s past colonization under England and the country’s initial fight for freedom. The poem argues that this spark of opportunity and abundance always existed:
“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.”
1993: “On the Pulse of Morning” by Maya Angelou, recited at President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration
Beloved poet Maya Angelou’s “On the Pulse of Morning” asks Americans to stand tall, facing both the challenges and triumphs of the future with courage. She encourages humanity to be aware of its glory and all it can achieve, turning away from past violence and in favor of optimism:
“You, created only a little lower than / The angels, have crouched too long in / The bruising darkness / Have lain too long / Facedown in ignorance, / Your mouths spilling words / Armed for slaughter. / The Rock cries out to us today, / You may stand upon me, / But do not hide your face.”
1997: “Of History and Hope” by Miller Williams, recited at President Bill Clinton’s second inauguration
Miller Williams, who authored 25 collections of poetry, preaches the importance of acknowledging and learning from the past in “Of History and Hope.” The poem operates around pivotal questions, inviting Americans to answer them and to continue redefining these answers with future generations.
“But where are we going to be, and why, and who? / The disenfranchised dead want to know. / We mean to be the people we meant to be, / to keep going where we meant to go. / But how do we fashion the future? / Who can say how / except in the minds of those who will call it Now?”
2009: “Praise Song for the Day” by Elizabeth Alexander, recited at President Barack Obama’s first inauguration
While many inaugural poets focus on lofty ideals, Alexander praises everyday images and moments, exalting them into a position of meaning and beauty. The poem gathers these images into a kind of colorful patchwork, a fitting approach for an increasingly multicultural society. With an appreciation for this diversity, Alexander hopes to bring these different populations together through strong, common values.
“Praise song for the struggle, praise song for the day. / Praise song for every hand-lettered sign, / the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables. / Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself, / others by first do no harm or take no more / than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?”
2013: “One Today” by Richard Blanco, recited at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration
“One Today” revolves around a key word in the poem’s title: “one.” The poem showcases many individual images and specifics, acting as a narrative through a full day in many separate lives, but unites them all around one overarching vision. The end of the poem marks a call for Americans to literally look up, contextualizing themselves as part of a global community.
“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.”
Take Gorman’s extraordinary story and responsibility as a writing prompt. How would you write a unifying poem? For even more of a challenge, follow another inauguration guideline: Keep your poem to six minutes or fewer read aloud. How can you pack significance and power into every line?