Well-Versed: The Inaugural Poets

Poet Elizabeth Alexander, who will read a poem at the Inauguration of Barack Obama. poetry, literature, inaugural poet, inaugural poem
The Inaugural Poet,
In a work sharp and terse,
Must capture the moment
And compose stirring verse.
A talk with this year's poet is ours,
Thanks to Erin Moriarty, of

The image at John F. Kennedy's 1961 inauguration is unforgettable: Poet Laureate Robert Frost, turning a political event into a poetic one.

Yet, the inaugural poem never quite caught on as an American tradition. It took another 31 years before President Clinton asked Maya Angelou to recite one, in 1993.

"Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.
History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced
With courage, need not be lived again. …"
The last poet to perform was back in 1996, Miller Williams:
"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. …"
"Poets are used to working quietly and unnoticed - little mice, hiding in the woodwork," says Elizabeth Alexander, who has been asked to write and deliver a poem for President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration.

"Why do you think he chose you?" Moriarty asked.

"Well, I don't know!" Alexander laughed.

Actually, Alexander, a Yale professor, is an award-winning poet-who worked with the President-elect at the University of Chicago.

On Tuesday she will become only the fourth person to recite a poem at an Inauguration, with only weeks to write it.

"Isn't that difficult? This is basically coming up with a poem on demand," said Moriarty.

"Yes, it is."

"And a little scary!"

"Perhaps I should be scared," Alexander laughed. "I'm not scared because I think to be scared would not be helpful."

"So is it unhelpful if I remind you that there will not only be about three million people in the Mall, but maybe hundreds of millions watching this?"

"That's OK."

Poetry and politics - these days, it can be a comical combination, as when there is an impeached Illinois Governor spouting verse by Alfred Lord Tennyson at his accusers:

"To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."
If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs ... !

But poet David Lehman, the editor of "The Oxford Book of American Poetry" (Oxford Univ. Press), says lyrical speech used to be commonplace, even among Presidents.

"The finest poet was Abraham Lincoln," Lehman told Moriarty. "Abraham Lincoln, in his 30s, wrote a poem called 'My Childhood Home I See Again.'"

Other Presidents put poets to work.

"Franklin Roosevelt thought so highly of Archibald MacLeish, the poet, that he made him the Librarian of Congress, at which job he excelled," said Lehman.

But when Lyndon Johnson invited Robert Lowell to the White House in 1965, the poet refused that invitation with a powerful anti-Vietnam War letter sent to The New York Times. ("We are in danger of imperceptibly becoming an explosive and suddenly chauvinistic nation, and we may even be drifting on our way to the last nuclear ruin," Lowell wrote.)

And how did LBJ feel about poetry after that?

"I don't think he wanted American poets to come to the White House after that incident," Lehman said. "I think he might have said that in a much more colorful way than I just did!"

So it's no wonder that Obama's selection of an Inaugural Poet was greeted with such enthusiasm by writers. They hope it's a signal that the new administration will be more receptive to what artists have to say.

Humorist and writer Calvin Trillin, who uses verse to poke fun at politicians, says poetry can reveal the best in them. "It's more appropriate to have a poem than a prayer" at the Inauguration, he said.

"I think poetry as opposed to verse is a very high form of writing," Trillin said.

"Is that really the forum to hear it?" Moriarty asked. "It's cold outside, people are coming to see a President sworn in. Is that really the place to hear great poetry?"

"Better than having a novelist up there! It would take a lot longer and you would really freeze."

But Elizabeth Alexander may find, as Robert Frost did 48 years ago, that performing on a cold blustery day in January is not without risks.

Frost struggled to read the poem he had written for the occasion, "Dedication," in the wind and glaring sun ("I just have to get through this," he said).

Frost finally gave up, and recited another poem (some say a much better one, "The Gift Outright") from memory:

"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 would become."
"I won't let that happen," said Alexander. "I will have backup copies of the poem. So if it blows away, there'll be something else tucked inside the coat."

Alexander won't divulge what she plans to say, but her life story may offer some clues.

She's the daughter of Clifford Alexander, a civil rights advisor to President Johnson and later the first African American Secretary of the Army.

And in 1963, Elizabeth Alexander and her family were among the millions listening to Martin Luther King Jr as he delivered his iconic "I Have a Dream" speech. It was pure poetry …

"I was in a stroller. And it was on that same stretch, you know, on the Mall. We went because this was a tremendous moment. So I always felt very proud of that, that I could say I was there. It does feel like a kind of coming full-circle."

For more info:

  • Elizabeth Alexander
  • David Lehman (Academy of American Poets)
  • Library Of Congress: Lincoln As Poet