Poetry Friday: Another Inaugural Poem (well, two, really)

h1 January 23rd, 2009 by eisha

The land was ours before we were the land’s…Wasn’t it nice to have poetry during the inauguration again? I thought so, too.

Do you know who the first President to have poetry read during the inauguration ceremony was? John F. Kennedy. And in case you didn’t know who he chose, it was Robert Frost. A natural choice, being a fellow New Englander and all. But – stop me if you’ve heard this before – there was kind of a hitch during the reading.

Frost had composed a poem especially for the occasion, titled “Dedication.” Here’s how it starts:

Summoning artists to participate
In the august occasions of the state
Seems something artists ought to celebrate.
Today is for my cause a day of days.
And his be poetry’s old-fashioned praise
Who was the first to think of such a thing.
This verse that in acknowledgement I bring
Goes back to the beginning of the end
Of what had been for centuries the trend;
A turning point in modern history.

But Frost had just composed this one recently, and wasn’t very familiar with it. The sun glaring off the snowy hills around the Capitol made it too hard for him to read from the paper in his hand. So, instead, he substituted a poem he’d written in 1942, and recited it from memory. It’s called “The Gift Outright:”

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
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England’s, Still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.

You can read the entire texts of both poems by clicking here. And you can see “The Gift Outright” in Frost’s own handwriting here. Frankly, I prefer the substitute poem to the one he composed for Kennedy. I was thinking about that during this past Tuesday’s ceremony, how hard it must be to write poetry on demand like that. Especially for such a significant occasion. I mean, geez, no pressure or anything. It makes sense that for poetry – which is such a distilled medium for expressing ideas and emotions – to really truly move the listener, it needs to come from a pure source.

But maybe that’s just me. What do you think? Is it possible to write a truly excellent poem at someone else’s request, with a deadline, and the pressure of knowing billions of people will hear you read it aloud for the first time? And what did you think of Elizabeth Alexander’s poem Tuesday?

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This weeks Poetry Friday Round-Up is being hosted by Laura Purdie Salas, a gifted poet herself. You know it’ll be good.

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13 comments to “Poetry Friday: Another Inaugural Poem (well, two, really)”

  1. I had the same thoughts about the idea of being asked to write a poem for an inauguration — the pressure to be profound, to be “significant” and to soar beyond eloquence would be paralyzing to me.

    Loved seeing “The Gift Outright” in Frost’s own handwriting. Thanks.


  2. I liked Elizabeth Alexander’s poem (and was listening to it on the Mall!) but I felt it paled in comparison to the graceful words of our President. Not that her words weren’t graceful–but to follow the President who speaks with such beautiful cadence, I felt the poem was a bit stilted as she read it.

    Anna Quindlen wrote in her Newsweek column, addressing Obama: “A poet will declaim as you are sworn in. After that, the responsibility of civic poetry is all yours.”

    (http://www.newsweek.com/id/178844)

    Civic poetry! Hurrah!

    Agreed that writing on demand is difficult, but sometimes it helps one focus, perhaps?


  3. Each time a poet reads at the Inauguration (which hasn’t been often), I wonder how you can write as a command performance. Frost’s *new* poem drew on the elements of the occasion (stateliness, formality), but the memorized piece was far more poetic.

    I found Reverend Lowery’s benediction more poetic than Elizabeth Alexander’s poem. Maybe poets can learn from Robert Frost: draw from the beauty the muse has given you. That’s the work that got you *here*.


  4. I think general concensus is that Frost’s second, memorized poem was better than the one he intended to read. Perhaps a good example of the superiority of a poem with an organic source/inspiration rather than a command performance.

    I liked E. Alexander’s poem, and don’t fault her delivery as some have. It was very cold and nerve wracking, and I empathized with the huge pressure she was under. She touched on key Obama things — the glory of the average individual, whatever work he/she does, reverence for our ancestors and their struggles, the importance of the word, the power of unconditional love, and, of course, hope.


  5. Frost’s “special” poem was too self-conscious, which is why it is the lesser work. I like Alexander’s poem quite a bit (posted the text on Weds.), and found her to be completely delightful on the Colbert Report (posted her interview – and a transcript of it that I put together – as part of today’s poetry Friday post).


  6. Hi, Jules and Eisha! I have tagged you over at my blog… with the Butterfly Award. Cause 7-Imp is one of the coolest blogs I’ve ever known. :D Have a fantastic weekend!


  7. I, too, prefer Frost’s poem that wasn’t written for the inauguration of Kennedy.

    Writing a poem for a special occasion like an inauguration has got to be a difficult task indeed!

    Right after Alexander had read her poem during the inaugural ceremony, my husband turned to me and asked what I thought about the poem. I told him I liked it. It was about the common people–and not about august events. I believe Alexander wanted her poem to be about “us”–to be inclusive…to honor and give voice to all of us who go about our lives every day and to those who came before us and helped build the country.
    She used simple language, which I felt was appropriate for the context of “Praisesong for the Day.” I think she did this in keeping with the message that Obama gave the citizens of our country during his presidential campaign and in the weeks that has passed since Election Day. I also like the way she ended her poem.


  8. Yay, more inaugural poetry!

    I definitely agree with Kelly — Frost’s first poem is quite self-conscious, so the recited one is much, much better. I do think that EA’s poem scans much better read — the fact is, the human brain is good for about 20 minutes of paying attention, and then, oh, how we wander. I was overwhelmed by the time she read — I tuned in and tuned out the whole time. Even the president’s speech is better read for me.

    Although, I have to admit that all of America tuned in at the end of the benediction. I caught the beginning, and mouthed the words, and the end and just laughed and laughed…


  9. OOPS! A correction in a sentence that should have read: I think she did this in keeping with the message Obama gave the citizens of our country during his presidential campaign and in the weeks that HAVE passed since Election Day.


  10. very disappointing…He should have chosen an Irish poet for the task…(would have pleased Biden, if nothing else)


  11. Hmmm. I’m one of those people who works better with a deadline, but a deadline and the amount of pressure one would be under to create spectacularly as in the cases of Frost and Alexander? Maybe not a great combination. I wholeheartedly agree with Elise–I love the rhythm and timbre of Obama’s speaking voice, which IMO would have been better suited to reading Alexander’s poem than the poet’s.


  12. Thanks for chiming in, everyone. I thought Alexander’s poem was good, but it didn’t blow me away. But like TadMack, I HOOTED at the end of the benediction. And did you see Obama crack up during it, too? Awesome.


  13. Sheesh, I thought writing poetry on demand for educational publishers was a bit nerve-wracking–can’t imagine something like an inauguration. Still, I think it’s fun to write poetry on demand (when a whole world isn’t watching and judging).

    I liked Alexander’s inaugural poem, but I enjoyed others I’ve read of hers in blogs this week much more. And her reading of it–oh my. Where was the passion? She was so charming on the Colbert Report. Great personality. THAT’s what I would have liked to have seen in her inaugural performance–personality and feeling.

    Of course, easy for me to say. I’m tongue-tied in front of 10 people. 2 million? I wouldn’t be able to speak a word.


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