Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Poetry of the Inauguration

The sun shone extraordinarily at the inauguration ceremonies for John Fitzgerald Kennedy. It was also extremely cold that day. Robert Frost was the first poet to read at an inaugural event. Aged, he was blinded by the bright sun reflecting off the white paper in front of him and he could not read what he had written. He resorted to his memory and recited another, older poem.
by Charlie Leck

Richard Blanco, it will be announced today, will be the inaugural poet. Hurrah for the President! It’s a good choice!

We don’t remember many of the presidential inauguration poets, do we? Robert Frost was at Kennedy’s inauguration. Of course, that’s the first I remember (because Frost was the first poet to read at a presidential inauguration), but I’ve always remembered the image of him, in the cold and bright sunshine, very clearly. I also remember Maya Angelou and James Dickey.

Mr. Blanco is a bit different than all of them. But, then, we’re all pretty different from one another, aren’t we? My old man used to say “that’s what makes a great horserace!” (Come to think of it, he said that about nearly everything!) If you want to find out about Mr. Blanco (and, he is, I say again, a different sort of fellow) you’ll find this NY Times story very interesting. In case my words here are misunderstood, I say blatantly that I approve of this selection, I admire Blanco and I await his reading eagerly.

My purpose this morning is more to think of some of the inaugural poetry. Since the practice was instituted by Kennedy, the poems have nearly all been original (that is, written originally for that particular occasion).

You might remember that it was Elizabeth Alexander who read her poem at President Obama’s inauguration in 2009 – Praise Song for the Day. I was mighty impressed by it. Who wouldn’t be? I remember being stunned when a number of my friends said they weren’t. (I remind myself that it’s a horserace!) The poem included these words that I liked so much that I memorized them, thinking I’d impress someone some day by reciting them (I never had the occasion).

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.

Oh, my! The words of the great poets are worthy of our attention – even the minor poets deserve great consideration from us. They speak in the language – often – of the great prophet poets of Old Testament scripture.

The story of Robert Frost’s reading at the Kennedy inauguration is an intriguing and jolly one. He struggled with the sunlight and the glare that struck his aging eyes. He couldn’t read the piece, called Dedication, so he fell back on one he had tucked in his memory, The Gift Outright. We were all rewarded by the raging sun.

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 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.

James Dickey, who I and all of America came to know from his staggering and remarkable novel, Deliverance, was invited to read a poem at Jimmy Carter’s inauguration. He was a big, powerful man, with a deep, strong voice. He read beautifully – The Strength of Fields. The poem concluded this way…

The moon lying on the brain
as on the excited seas 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.

It was a long time ago, wasn’t it? Yet, I remember the poets opening their beautiful, complicated souls to the America people.

And Maya Angelou? Immediately after hearing her read her remarkable poem at Bill Clinton’s inauguration, On the Pulse of Morning, I ordered bound copies of it to give to friends. I pull the book now from the shelves here in my study. She concluded her reading this way…

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.

Here are a few lines from one of Richard Blanco’s poems, Mother Picking Produce

She scratches the oranges then smells the peel,
presses an avocado just enough to judge its ripeness
polishes the Macintoshes searching for bruises.

She selects with hands that have thickened, fingers
that have swollen with history around the white gold
of a wedding ring she now wears as a widow.

It begins with this simplicity. It builds to a touching, remarkable conclusion. You can read it all here.


Of course, Abraham Lincoln didn’t need poetry read at his inauguration. His remarkable prose came so close to the beauty and rhythm of poetry that it stands tall as American literature. Below are words from his second inaugural address…

“Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God will that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

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