Today in Literary History – January 20, 1961, 1977, 1993, 1997, 2009 and 2013 – Poets at US Presidential Inaugurations

January 20th was set as the permanent date of American presidential inaugurations in 1933 with the passing of the Twentieth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Before then inaugurations were held on March 4th.

Since 1933 three American presidents, John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton and Barak Obama (all of them Democrats) have chosen to have a poet read at their January 20th inaugurations. Clinton and Obama both had poets at their second inaugurations as well.

(In 1977 Jimmy Carter had former United States Poet Laureate and fellow Georgian James Dickey read his poem “The Strength of Fields,” not at the Inauguration Ceremony itself however, but at the Inaugural Ball that evening.)

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The first president to have a poet read at his inauguration was John F. Kennedy in 1961. He invited the venerable Robert Frost to read a poem specially written for the occasion.

However, when the 86 year-old Frost got to the podium he found that he couldn’t read the transcript of the poem due to the intense glare from the sun and snow. Instead, he recited an older poem from memory – “The Gift Outright,” a favourite of Kennedy’s.

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At his first inauguration in 1993 Bill Clinton invited beloved poet Maya Angelou to recite a poem she wrote specially for the swearing in, “The Pulse of Light.” Her appearance was a particularly dramatic moment in the ceremony. For his second inauguration he invited Miller Williams, a fellow Arkansan (and by the way, the father of singer songwriter Lucinda Williams) to read a specially written poem, “Of History and Hope.”

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In 2009 Barak Obama chose Elizabeth Alexander, a poet and the chair of the African American Studies department at Yale University, who was also the sister of his close friend and advisor, Mark Alexander. She read a specially written poem, “Praise Song for the Day, Praise Song for Struggle.”

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Obama invited Cuban-American poet Richard Blanco for his second inauguration. Blanco was the first immigrant, first Latino and first openly gay man to be chosen to read at an inauguration. At Obama’s request Blanco submitted three poems and read the chosen one, “One Today.”

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So far, no Republican has chosen a poet for their inaugural ceremonies. Just as well, perhaps.

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