You might think that reading a poem at the inauguration – or protest – of American presidents is an ancient tradition. It’s not like that. It happened only six times, and it’s contemporary.
Here they are all.
Yes, poems have been written around those events, dedicated to some of the leaders. But they were not read at the ceremonies, nor did they make their authors famous, nor did they form part of the rite that stops the country every four years.
So far, only six prize-winning poets have been commissioned with a poem for the occasion. Richard Frost, Maya Angelou, Miller Williams, Elizabeth Alexander, Richard Blanco and the youngest, the recent one, Amanda Gorman.
The poems did not last in history. They did not became classics. In general, they were not particularly good, and probably the poets themselves will concur: commissioned, written whether or not the inspiration comes, and perhaps with directions and instructions from presidential officials.
What draws presidents to include a poet at the very core of the very act of taking power? Perhaps they will play Lorenzo de Medici. Because they have a court with a poet and everything. Perhaps it is only the image of poetry lovers they want to project what perhaps they are not. And maybe, just maybe, they like poetry.
Kennedy’s Poet: Robert Frost
It was Richard Frost’s turn to be the first. It was in 1961, for the inauguration (“Inauguration” is also the name of the poem) of John F. Kennedy. The story – or rather, what is related on this site – is that although the future president had asked him to read a poem that he, Kennedy, knew, Frost insisted on writing a new one. He brought to the ceremony the sheet of paper where he had written the final version. But it was raining, in fact, it was cold, maybe even snowing, Frost, you see, he could not decipher what he had written just a while ago, so he read the poem that Kennedy had originally asked him: The Absolute Gift, written nearly 20 years earlier.
And the incident was filmed for posterity:
And as for the text, here is the original, in English, compiled from the site of the assassinated president’s Presidential Library, here.
The Gift Outright
The land was ours before we were the land’s
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people de ella. She 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 ella she was ella, such as ella she will become ella.
Clinton’s Poet: Maya Angelou
It took 22 years for the next poetry reading at the presidential inauguration ceremony, Bill Clinton’s, on January 20 (always January 20), 1993, when he began the first of his two terms.
Once again it was a consecrated writer who was chosen: Maya Angelou. And while Frost’s text was about the uniqueness of the new and thriving North American nation, Angelou broke down the parts that make the national identity, listing the native peoples and countries of origin of the immigrants who converged on the United States.
She would not be the last to delve in this subject. Those who came after her both repeated the same theme, each one adapting them to a contemporary reality and purely their own.
Outside of that, as the video of the event shows, it was similar to the previous one. And so are all, taking place in the same physical space of the Capitol. Only the faces change.
On the Pulse of Morning
Each of you, descendant of some passed
On traveler, has been paid for.
You, who gave me my first name, you,
Pawnee, Apache, Seneca, you
Cherokee Nation, who rested with me, then
Forced on bloody feet,
Left me to the employment of
Other seekers — desperate for gain,
Starving for gold.
You, the Turk, the Arab, the Swede, the German, the Eskimo, the Scot,
You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru, bought,
Sold, stolen, arriving on the nightmare
Praying for a dream.
Here, root yourselves beside me.
I am that Tree planted by the River,
Which will not be moved.
Clinton’s Poet: Miller Williams
Clinton also included a poet in his 1997 second inauguration ceremony: Miller Williams, writer, historian, educator, and also poet, who contributed with “Of History and Hope” that year. He passed away in 2015, aged 84.
Of History and Hope
We have memorized America,
how it was born and who we have been and where.
In ceremonies and silence we say the words,
telling the stories, singing the old songs.
We like the places they take us. Mostly we do.
The great and all the anonymous dead are there.
We know the sound of all the sounds we brought.
The rich taste of it is on our tongues.
But where are we going to be, and why, and who?
The disenfranchised dead want to know.
We mean to be the people we meant to be,
to keep on going where we meant to go.
Obama’s Poet: Elizabeth Alexander
In 2009, Elizabeth Alexander read this Elegy for the Day, which talks about the almost magical everyday life of the American. Here is the video of the moment and a rereading of the poem eleven years later.
Praise Song for the Day
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 buildings
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.
Obama’s Poet: Richard Blanco
The Spaniard Richard Blanco, born in 1968, was the first immigrant – the first born abroad – to receive the undisputed honor, with “One Today”. Here is the full version.
By the way, at 44, Blanco was the youngest of the presidential poets. Until 22-year-old Amanda Gorman arrived.
This is, in my opinion, perhaps the most powerful of the poems recited at presidential events.
One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,
peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces
of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth
across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies.
One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story
told by our silent gestures moving behind windows.
My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors,
each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper—
bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives—
to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem.
All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
the “I have a dream” we keep dreaming,
or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light
breathing color into stained glass windows,
life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth
onto the steps of our museums and park benches
as mothers watch children slide into the day.
One ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk
of corn, every head of wheat sown by sweat
and hands, hands gleaning coal or planting windmills
in deserts and hilltops that keep us warm, hands
digging trenches, routing pipes and cables, hands
as worn as my father’s cutting sugarcane
so my brother and I could have books and shoes.
The dust of farms and deserts, cities and plains
mingled by one wind — our breath. Breathe. Hear it
through the day’s gorgeous din of honking cabs,
buses launching down avenues, the symphony
of footsteps, guitars, and screeching subways,
the unexpected song bird on your clothes line.
Hear: squeaky playground swings, trains whistling,
or whispers across café tables, Hear: the doors we open
for each other all day, saying: hello, shalom,
buon giorno, howdy, namaste, or good morning
in the language my mother taught me — in every language
spoken into one wind carrying our lives
without prejudice, as these words break from my lips.
One sky: since the Appalachians and Sierras claimed
their majesty, and the Mississippi and Colorado worked
their way to the sea. Thank the work of our hands:
weaving steel into bridges, finishing one more report
for the boss on time, stitching another wound
or uniform, the first brush stroke on a portrait,
or the last floor on the Freedom Tower
jutting into a sky that yields to our resilience.
One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes
tired from work: some days guessing at the weather
of our lives, some days giving thanks for a love
that loves you back, sometimes praising a mother
who knew how to give, or forgiving a father
who couldn’t give what you wanted.
We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always — home,
always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country — all of us—
facing the stars
hope — a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it — together.
Biden’s Poet: Amanda Gorman
Finally, Amanda Gorman read The Hill We Climb, another epic or summary of American history and psyche.
Amanda Gorman, 22, is from here, from Los Angeles. Poet and community activist, she was the first to be named a National Youth Poet Laureate. With this formal title she took the podium on January 20, 2021 to read her poem. Minutes later, Joe Biden would be sworn in as president, ending Donald Trump’s reign of horror.
When she stepped off the stage, Gorman was already a figure admired by millions, on her way to a performance in the Super Bowl. She no longer seemed far-fetched that she had said she wanted to be president in 2036.
Gorman told the New York Times that no one gave her instructions on what to include or how to write her poem, and that she had it almost written when, on January 6, the Trump-fueled mob invaded the Capitol. That inspired her to change it. That inspiration is noticeable in the poem, and in its reading.
It was quick. The next day, Random House published the poem in book form, or little book.
The Hill we Climb
When day comes, we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade?The loss we carry. A sea we must wade.
We braved the belly of the beast.
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace, and the norms and notions of what “just” is isn’t always justice.
And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it.
Somehow we do it.
Somehow we weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.
We, the successors of a country and a time where a skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president, only to find herself reciting for one.
And, yes, we are far from polished, far from pristine, but that doesn’t mean we are striving to form a union that is perfect.
We are striving to forge our union with purpose.
To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man.
And so we lift our gaze, not to what stands between us, but what stands before us.
We close the divide because we know to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside.
We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another.
We seek harm to none and harmony for all.
Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true.
That even as we grieved, we grew.
That even as we hurt, we hoped.
That even as we tired, we tried.
That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious.
Not because we will never again know defeat, but because we will never again sow division.
Scripture tells us to envision that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid.
If we’re to live up to our own time, then victory won’t lie in the blade, but in all the bridges we’ve made.
That is the promise to glade, the hill we climb, if only we dare.
It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit.
It’s the past we step into and how we repair it.
We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation, rather than share it.
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.
And this effort very nearly succeeded.
But while democracy can be periodically delayed, it can never be permanently defeated.
In this truth, in this faith we trust, for while we have our eyes on the future, history has its eyes on us.
This is the era of just redemption.
We feared at its inception.
We did not feel prepared to be the heirs of such a terrifying hour.
But within it we found the power to author a new chapter, to offer hope and laughter to ourselves.
So, while once we asked, how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe, now we assert, how could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?
We will not march back to what was, but move to what shall be: a country that is bruised but whole, benevolent but bold, fierce and free.
We will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation because we know our inaction and inertia will be the inheritance of the next generation, become the future.
Our blunders become their burdens.
But one thing is certain.
If we merge mercy with might, and might with right, then love becomes our legacy and change our children’s birthright.
So let us leave behind a country better than the one we were left.
Every breath from my bronze-pounded chest, we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.
We will rise from the golden hills of the West.
We will rise from the windswept Northeast where our forefathers first realized revolution.
We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the Midwestern states.
We will rise from the sun-baked South.
We will rebuild, reconcile, and recover.
And every known nook of our nation and every corner called our country, our people diverse and beautiful, will emerge battered and beautiful.
When day comes, we step out of the shade of flame and unafraid.
The new dawn balloons as we free it.
For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.
Founder and co-editor of Latino Los Angeles. Editor Emeritus of La Opinion, former Editor-in-Chief. Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, is a journalist, columnist, blogger, poet, novelist, and short story writer. Was the editorial director of Huffington Post Voces. Editor-in-chief of the weekly Tiempo in Israel. Is the father of three grown children and lives with Celia and with Rosie, Almendra and Yinyit in Los Angeles.