Poems written for special occasions rarely measure up. Seems like the more important the occasion the greater the level of failure. US Presidential Inauguration poems have not had a happy history.
The first poem read at an inauguration was Robert Frost’s “Gift Outright” read at the John Kennedy inauguration. Frankly, Frost had it easy. He had published the poem two decades earlier in “Witness Tree” (1942) and won the Pulitzer Prize for that book. The poem was already known by Kennedy from their time at Harvard. Well-enough known that Kennedy suggested a few tweeks to the poem. In the final line, changing “would” to “will” for example. At 86, Frost was already a well-known master of poetry, but even he could not resist overdoing it. He added an overlong tedious preface to the poem (called sometimes “The Dedication”). Either by luck or by art, the wind seemed to blow his pages out of his hands as he started to read or some say he couldn’t read the print. In any case, we are lucky to left with his reciting the poem “Gift” sans preface in the cold January air.
Jimmy Carter sought to built the poem presentation into a tradition when he invited James Dickey to write a new poem and read it at his inauguration. Dickey’s poem, “The Strength of Fields” isn’t a bad read. Dickey’s slightly avant garde typography did cause some problems for many newspapers that printed the poem (in my memory at least) and for some readers. Oddly, Dickey isn’t often counted in the poets having created official inaugural poems in many current news stories.
Poetry took another rest until the election of Bill Clinton. Clinton invited former-Arkansas poet (then living in North Carolina) Maya Angelou to write and read her poem at his inauguration. Her poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” which began “A Rock, A River, A Tree” was considered completely overboard in its reach and political inclusiveness — what made Whitman one of our greatest didn’t seem to be working out for Angelou according to critics. Nonetheless “Pulse” sold over a million copies.
For his second Inaugural, Clinton invited another Arkansan Miller Williams to create and read a poem. Williams’ poem, “Of History and Hope,” was almost immediately forgotten. It’s not a bad poem but it is a very safe poem. Not audacious like Angelou’s nor experimental like Dickey’s nor well-tested and already loved by some like Frost’s, just safe and not very challenging.
This was the lineage that poet Elizabeth Alexander entered today as she recited her “Praise Song for the Day: A Poem for Barack Obama’s Presidential Inauguration.” The poem hints at formality without becoming a strong mind-sticking rhythm and rhyme machine like Frost built in “Gift” or falling into a staggering plod like “Dedication.” It never reaches for an experimental edge as Dickey’s “Fields.” It lacks the audacious energy of Angelou but avoids some of her silliness — although for some that silliness is the attraction of Angelou’s “Pulse.”
I fear that Alexander is more like Miller Williams than William Carlos Williams. Safe reliable sincere and not very memorable.
On the other hand, the Rev. Joseph Lowery begin his benediction by reciting the last verse of James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing” a poem also known as the lyrics of the Negro National Anthem (1899). That poem seemed fresh and relevant and timely and appropriate for the occasion especially coming from the 87 year old Lowery. And both memorable and moving.