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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.

There is a true yearning to respond to The singing River and the wise Rock. So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew The African, the Native American, the Sioux, The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheik, The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher, The privileged, the homeless, the Teacher. They hear. They all hear The speaking of the Tree. They hear the first and last of every Tree Speak to humankind today. Come to me, here beside the River. Plant yourself beside the River.

Each of you, descendant of some passed On traveller, has been paid for. You, who gave me my first name, you, Pawnee, Apache, Seneca, you Cherokee Nation, who rested with me, then Forced on bloody feet, Left me to the employment of Other seekers—desperate for gain, Starving for gold. You, the Turk, the Arab, the Swede, the German, the Eskimo, the Scot, You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru, bought, Sold, stolen, arriving on the nightmare Praying for a dream. Here, root yourselves beside me. I am that Tree planted by the River, Which will not be moved. I, the Rock, I the River, I the Tree I am yours—your passages have been paid. Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need For this bright morning dawning for you. History, despite its wrenching pain Cannot be unlived, but if faced With courage, need not be lived again.

Lift up your eyes upon This day breaking for you. Give birth again To the dream.

Women, children, men, Take it into the palms of your hands, Mold it into the shape of your most Private need. Sculpt it into The image of your most public self. Lift up your hearts

Each new hour holds new chances For a new beginning. Do not be wedded forever To fear, yoked eternally To brutishness.

The horizon leans forward, Offering you space to place new steps of change. Here, on the pulse of this fine day You may have the courage To look up and out and upon me, the Rock, the River, the Tree, your country. No less to Midas than the mendicant. No less to you now than the mastodon then.

Here, on the pulse of this new day You may have the grace to look up and out And into your sister’s eyes, and into Your brother’s face, your country And say simply Very simply With hope— Good morning.


Source: On the Pulse of Morning (Random House, 1993)


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President Bill Clinton's inauguration, 1997


Of History and Hope

by Miller Williams


We have memorized America, how it was born and who we have been and where. In ceremonies and silence we say the words, telling the stories, singing the old songs. We like the places they take us. Mostly we do. The great and all the anonymous dead are there. We know the sound of all the sounds we brought. The rich taste of it is on our tongues. 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 on 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? 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. Who were many people coming together cannot become one people falling apart. Who dreamed for every child an even chance cannot let luck alone turn doorknobs or not. Whose law was never so much of the hand as the head cannot let chaos make its way to the heart. Who have seen learning struggle from teacher to child cannot let ignorance spread itself like rot. We know what we have done and what we have said, and how we have grown, degree by slow degree, believing ourselves toward all we have tried to become— just and compassionate, equal, able, and free. All this in the hands of children, eyes already set on a land we never can visit—it isn’t there yet— but looking through their eyes, we can see what our long gift to them may come to be. If we can truly remember, they will not forget.


Source: Some Jazz a While: Collected Poems (University of Illinois Press, 1999)


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President Barack Obama's inauguration, 2009


Praise Song for the Day

by Elizabeth Alexander

Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each other’s eyes or not, about to speak or speaking. All about us is noise. All about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din, each one of our ancestors on our tongues. Someone is stitching up a hem, darning a hole in a uniform, patching a tire, repairing the things in need of repair. Someone is trying to make music somewhere, with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum, with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice. A woman and her son wait for the bus. A farmer considers the changing sky. A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin. We encounter each other in words, words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed, words to consider, reconsider. We cross dirt roads and highways that mark the will of some one and then others, who said I need to see what’s on the other side. I know there’s something better down the road. We need to find a place where we are safe. We walk into that which we cannot yet see. 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. 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? Love beyond marital, filial, national, love that casts a widening pool of light, love with no need to pre-empt grievance. In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air, any thing can be made, any sentence begun. On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp, praise song for walking forward in that light.


Source: Praise Song for the Day (Katherine Tegen Books, 2012)


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President Barack Obama's inauguration, 2013


One Today

By Richard Blanco One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores, peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies. One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story told by our silent gestures moving behind windows.

My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors, each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day: pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights, fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper— bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us, on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives— to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did for twenty years, so I could write this poem.

All of us as vital as the one light we move through, the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day: equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined, the “I have a dream” we keep dreaming, or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain the empty desks of twenty children marked absent today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light breathing color into stained glass windows, life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth onto the steps of our museums and park benches as mothers watch children slide into the day.

One ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk of corn, every head of wheat sown by sweat and hands, hands gleaning coal or planting windmills in deserts and hilltops that keep us warm, hands digging trenches, routing pipes and cables, hands as worn as my father’s cutting sugarcane so my brother and I could have books and shoes.

The dust of farms and deserts, cities and plains mingled by one wind—our breath. Breathe. Hear it through the day’s gorgeous din of honking cabs, buses launching down avenues, the symphony of footsteps, guitars, and screeching subways, the unexpected song bird on your clothes line.

Hear: squeaky playground swings, trains whistling, or whispers across café tables, Hear: the doors we open for each other all day, saying: hello / shalom, buon giorno / howdy / namaste / or buenos días in the language my mother taught me—in every language spoken into one wind carrying our lives without prejudice, as these words break from my lips.

One sky: since the Appalachians and Sierras claimed their majesty, and the Mississippi and Colorado worked their way to the sea. Thank the work of our hands: weaving steel into bridges, finishing one more report for the boss on time, stitching another wound or uniform, the first brush stroke on a portrait, or the last floor on the Freedom Tower jutting into a sky that yields to our resilience.

One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes tired from work: some days guessing at the weather of our lives, some days giving thanks for a love that loves you back, sometimes praising a mother who knew how to give, or forgiving a father who couldn’t give what you wanted.

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


Source: One Today, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013


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You may order Amanda Gorman's Change Sings: A Children's Anthem and the upcoming The Hill We Climb: Poems at the local, independent Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza.



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