Poetry seems so natural an inclusion in public ceremony that you might be surprised to learn that it was nearly 200 years after the very first Presidential oath of office was taken by George Washington before a poet was included in the official inauguration proceedings. There are a couple of 19th century poems historically associated with Presidential inaugurations in the archives of the Library of Congress, but neither was actually read during the swearing-in ceremony:
- “An Ode in Honor of the Inauguration of Buchanan & Breckinridge, President and Vice President of the United States” by Col W. Emmons, printed on broadside in 1857.
- “An Inaugural Poem, Dedicated to Abraham Lincoln, of Illinois , and Andrew Johnson, of Tennessee,” from The Chronicle Junior, an inauguration program that was actually printed on a press in a wagon during Lincoln’s inaugural parade in 1865.
Robert Frost was the first poet invited to be part of the official swearing-in of an American president, when John F. Kennedy took office in 1961. Frost actually wrote a new poem for the occasion, a fact that seems slightly odd considering his stated aversion to writing poems on commission. It was a not-terribly good poem called “Dedication” that he intended as a preface to the older poem Kennedy had originally requested, but on Inauguration Day, circumstances intervened—the glare of bright sunlight off new snow, his faint typescript and the wind ruffling his pages and his white hair made it impossible for Frost to read the new poem, so he gave up the attempt and went directly into reciting Kennedy’s request without the preamble. “The Gift Outright” outlines the story of American independence in its 16 lines, in a triumphant, patriotic tone that brings to mind the 19th century doctrine of manifest destiny and domination of the continent. But as usual, Frost’s poem is aimed at a target less conventional than it first appears. “The land was ours before we were the land’s,” but we became Americans not by conquering this place, but by surrendering to it. We ourselves, the people of America, are the gift of the poem’s title, and “The deed of gift was many deeds of war.” At Kennedy’s request, Frost changed one word in the last line of the poem, to strengthen the certainty of its prediction for America’s future—“Such as she was, such as she would become” became “Such as she was, such as she will become.” (You can watch NBC News coverage of the entire 1961 inauguration ceremony at Hulu.com, if you’re willing to sit through ads inserted at 7-10 minute intervals in the hour-long video—Frost’s recitation is in the middle, immediately before Kennedy’s oath of office.)
The next president who included a poet in the proceedings surrounding his inauguration was Jimmy Carter in 1977, but the poem didn’t make it into the actual swearing-in ceremony. James Dickey read his poem “The Strength of Fields” at the Kennedy Center gala after Carter’s inauguration.
It was another 16 years before poetry entered again into the official inauguration ceremony. That was in 1993, when Maya Angelou wrote and read “On the Pulse of Morning” for Bill Clinton’s first inauguration, her reading here on YouTube. Clinton also included a poet in his 1997 inaugural ceremony—Miller Williams contributed “Of History and Hope” that year.
The tradition of presidential inauguration poems seems now to have settled in with Democratic presidents. Elizabeth Alexander was commissioned as inaugural poet for Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009. She wrote “Praise Song for the Day, Praise Song for Struggle” for the occasion, and her recitation is preserved on YouTube. For Obama’s second inauguration ceremony in 2013, Richard Blanco was asked to submit three poems to the White House, which selected “One Today” for him to read following the President’s inaugural address. Blanco’s performance at the podium is also posted on YouTube.