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Poetry Friday: More presidential inauguration poems


Amanda Gorman (Photo by The Harvard Gazette)

Amanda Gorman has become a national sensation following her powerful reading of her poem “The Hill We Climb” at the 2021 presidential inauguration.


From NPR: "The morning after her powerful performance of 'The Hill We Climb' at the inauguration of President Biden, poet Amanda Gorman hit another high point: She took the top two slots on Amazon's bestseller list — for titles that won't be out until the fall." * (link to story on NPR.com)


Gorman clearly seized the moment. In an interview with CBS This Morning on Thursday, the 22-year old said, "I wanted it to be a message of hope and unity. And I think that Wednesday for me really just underscored how much that was needed, but to not turn a blind eye to the cracks that really need to be filled."


Can we count on presidential inaugurations to put poets in the spotlight, like those figure skaters and track athletes who become household names at each Olympics? Not so much. As we wrote on Wednesday, Amanda Gorman is one of just six poets given the honor, along with Richard Blanco in 2013, Elizabeth Alexander in 2009, Miller Williams in 1997, Maya Angelou in 1993, and Robert Frost in 1961.


One addition to the list from Wednesday's post. In 1977, Jimmy Carter chose fellow Georgian James L. Dickey to read a poem at a Kennedy Center gala ball on the night of the inauguration. Dickey is perhaps more known for his novel Deliverance (1970) which was adapted into an acclaimed film of the same name.


Another interesting find while researching this post: Poet Miller Williams, who died in 2005, was the father of singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams.


We hope you enjoy this Poetry Friday Presidential Inauguration Edition.


* We remind our readers to please support local, independent bookstores. Below each poem you'll find links to purchase the poets' collections from the local, independent Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza.


President John F. Kennedy's inauguration, 1961


The Gift Outright

by Robert Frost


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. Something we were withholding made us weak Until we found out that it was ourselves We were withholding from our land of living, And forthwith found salvation in surrender. 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 will become.


Source: The Poetry of Robert Frost: The Collected Poems, Complete and Unabridged, (Holt Paperbacks, 2002)


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President Jimmy Carter's inauguration, 1977

(No video of the reading could be found.)


The Strength of Fields

by James L. Dickey

Moth-force a small town always has, Given the night. What field-forms can be, Outlying the small civic light-decisions over A man walking near home? Men are not where he is Exactly now, but they are around him around him like the strength Of fields. The solar system floats on Above him in town-moths. Tell me, train-sound, With all your long-lost grief, what I can give. Dear Lord of all the fields what am I going to do? Street-lights, blue-force and frail As the homes of men, tell me how to do it how To withdraw how to penetrate and find the source Of the power you always had light as a moth, and rising With the level and moonlit expansion Of the fields around, and the sleep of hoping men. You? I? What difference is there? We can all be saved By a secret blooming. Now as I walk The night and you walk with me we know simplicity Is close to the source that sleeping men Search for in their home-deep beds. We know that the sun is away we know that the sun can be conquered By moths, in blue home-town air. The stars splinter, pointed and wild. The dead lie under The pastures. They look on and help. Tell me, freight-train, When there is no one else To hear. Tell me in a voice the sea Would have, if it had not a better one: as it lifts, Hundreds of miles away, its fumbling, deep-structured roar Like the profound, unstoppable craving Of nations for their wish. Hunger, time and the moon: The moon lying on the brain as on the excited sea as on The strength of fields. Lord, let me shake With purpose. Wild hope can always spring From tended strength. Everything is in that. That and nothing but kindness. More kindness, dear Lord Of the renewing green. That is where it all has to start: With the simplest things. More kindness will do nothing less Than save every sleeping one And night-walking one

Of us. My life belongs to the world. I will do what I can.

Source: James Dickey: The Selected Poems (Wesleyan University Press, 1998)


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President Bill Clinton's inauguration, 1993


On The Pulse Of Morning

by Maya Angelou

A Rock, A River, A Tree Hosts to species long since departed, Marked the mastodon, The dinosaur, who left dried tokens Of their sojourn here On our planet floor, Any broad alarm of their hastening doom Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.

But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully, Come, you may stand upon my Back and face your distant destiny, But seek no haven in my shadow. I will give you no hiding place down here.

You, created only a little lower than The angels, have crouched too long in The bruising darkness Have lain too long Face down 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. Across the wall of the world, A River sings a beautiful song. It says, Come, rest here by my side.

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 Knew nothing. The River sang and sings on.