Inaugurations and Occasional Poetry


How shall we receive Richard Blanco’s poem for the occasion of President Obama’s second inauguration? Occasional poems – poems written in honor of an occasion – may be as old as poetry itself. They have a great tradition, but quite arguably that tradition has significantly diminished. Why? One easily distinguished difference in the origination of occasional poems is whether the writing sprang from the poet’s own desire to dedicate some verse or, instead, the poet was commissioned to write the poem. The latter instance is burdened with expectation, with the occasion’s history and perhaps solemn or majestic moment, and with the simple public knowledge of the commission. There have been only five Presidential inaugural poems, and only one is recalled as being of distinction. The others have been generally declared as failures. This can only add, perhaps, to poets’ wishing to avoid the weight of the challenge, whatever the honor.

Annie Finch tells us,

Ever since Wordsworth accepted the British poet laureate appointment only on condition that he wouldn’t have to write occasional poems, even poets laureate (with the exception of Andrew Motion) are generally not interested in writing occasional poetry.

Carol Rumens captures the dilemma.

The celebratory public poem is an extinct genre in our sceptical postmodern times, and probably ought to stay that way. It presents the writer with insurmountable challenges in form, tone and content. How do you praise your nation wisely – with honesty and caution? How do you root that public voice in the personal and private spaces where thoughts grow? How do you write a mass-market poem?

Richard Blanco’s new inauguration poem, “One Today”, composed to usher in Barack Obama‘s second term, is a valiant but not always convincing attempt to square the circles.

What does the poet writing for the general public, reciting poetry aloud for a general public – the public in whose honor in the experiment of republican democracy the poem has been written – face? From Travis Nichols, at Harriet:

The woman next to me asked her partner, “Who’s this guy?” as the poet filled the Jumbotron. Partner shrugged and made a “whatev” face. Blanco began and our aurally firehosed ears took a second to adjust. The sound system muddied the words, but the cadence was clear, and some echoed back to us almost as if they were spoken right next to us. The stoic Hilary woman nodded along. At the mention of “Mississippi” a man next to me waved his fag and whooped. Another pocket of whoops erupted at “buenos días,” but collectively around me shoulders began to slump as the poem progressed. A pod of undergrads, seemingly inoculated to poetry’s charms by classroom exposure, sighed and rolled their eyes. A young man draped in a rainbow flag stuck out his jaw and made a “get on with it” hand gesture to his friends who snapped his photo.

The poet wishes to write good poetry. The poet wishes to see into the moment. The poet wishes to be meaningfully received by a wide audience. And the poet seeks to do it in, initially, for the occasion, a public reading, with all the challenges that presents to the satisfactory reception of poetry. Another view of the circle to be squared.

A review of the five inaugural poems (links to all at the bottom of this page), reveals that they have all made the identical attempt. Each has attempted to express the majestic multiplicity of America, the historic promise and the challenge of uniting its states, the grandeur of the land and the future. Each, to varying degrees of success, has made precisely the same attempt. Look at the titles:

“The Gift Outright”

On the Pulse of Morning

“Of History and Hope”

Praise Song for the Day

“One Day”

The sense and size of the occasion looms before them all. In “On the Pulse of Morning”,” Maya Angelou takes us all the way back to

the mastodon,
The dinosaur, who left dried tokens
Of their sojourn here

to her closing and redemptive

History, despite its wrenching pain
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.

This is all in the title alone of Miller Williams’ “Of History and Hope,” embraced by his opening

We have memorized America

and his ending invocation of our children:

If we can truly remember, they will not forget.

Elizabeth Alexander, in “Praise Song for the Day,” conjures the massive commonality and variety of our days.

Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other’s
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

So sets out Richard Blanco, Monday, in “One Day.”

My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors,
each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day

And as on inaugurals before, the call to hope, from Alexander:

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

praise song for walking forward in that light.

From Blanco:

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.

Four attempts only so far, remarkably similar, to limn the magnitude of what its citizens see in the United States of America, in its ideals and in its achievements measured against its failures. Only four – what are the chances some work already of great achievement would have been composed? Rumens offers a very balanced estimation of Blanco’s success, summing,

It might seem that the biggest problem with writing a public poem is that crude simplifications are forced on a reluctant poet. Blanco, it seems, is able to write in this “genre” with more natural conviction than most. A shorter poem, and above all one with a tighter form, might have helped maintain a consistently high verbal pressure, with no sacrifice of accessibility.

I agree that Blanco performed his task with “more natural conviction,” and one wonders at how serendipitously (but it was in the ingredients of his selection) Blanco’s poetry mirrored the foundational new America appeal – progressive unity in diversity – in the President’s speech. But Rumens conjectures that a “shorter poem, and above all one with a tighter form, might have helped maintain a consistently high verbal pressure, with no sacrifice of accessibility,” and I have been ignoring Frost, who, in “The Gift Outright” seems to have accomplished just this shorter, tighter poem with higher verbal pressure and no sacrifice of accessibility.

We need to recall that Frost in 1961, at age 87, was a monument of American poetry, a “philosopher-poet” of a stature approached by none of his successors, even the most famous of them, Angelou, who did not begin to follow his precedent for another thirty-one years. We need to recall something else. “The Gift Outright” was not written for the occasion of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. The poem was two decades old, a favorite of Kennedy’s that the President-elect requested were Frost not to choose to write a new, occasional poem.

Frost did write a new poem, “Dedication,” which he chose at the last minute not to read when he spoke because he could not clearly see the text in the glare of the sun. Instead, he recited “The Gift Outright” from memory. “Dedication” offers in the first half of a long ramble what became the usual attempt to sum the history of the nation, and in commonplace and prosaic rhyming couplets and triplets delivers what may be the worst poem Robert Frost ever wrote. In contrast, the compact “The Gift Outright” provides the deceptively simple and direct language of all of Frost’s poetry. Yet it is difficult to imagine the nonreader of poetry standing in the crowd responding much differently from the shruggers and yawners in the crowd for Blanco. While “The land was our before we were the land’s” is utterly simple and direct in vocabulary and syntax, it actually takes more than the instant of auditory reception at a reading to grasp properly as an idea. Just as typical of Frost, we find that the irony of “The Gift Outright” is that the land was anything but a gift outright, or that it isn’t even the land that was the gift.

Nobody got that standing in the January cold.

A great poem about the nation, but not written for the occasion, and that likely down below the portico did not rise to the occasion.

It is not a charge to be envied.


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2 thoughts on “Inaugurations and Occasional Poetry

  1. Thank you so much for writing this thorough and thoughtful review. And thank you for leaving the breadcrumbs for me to follow you here and find it. I appreciate the link. And yes, the task is a daunting one, and to be done in a matter of weeks! How many can write a lasting poem of the proper length that will appeal to everyone in such time? And no matter how amazing the poem or the poet, there is still the appeal factor.

    Rumens is an accomplished poet. I’ve been to Queens College where she used to teach. I have friends and family in Belfast, but I’m not sure that a British poet with a decidedly traditional penchant for iambic pentameter is the best one to judge whether or not an inaugural poet in the United States has “flopped.” There was much truth in her review, especially about the impossible nature of occasional poetry, but I was unhappy with her title, and found it presumptuous.

    In any case, thank you so much for helping to point out that we cannot judge these other four poets by Robert Frost’s “The Gift Outright,” since he had had plenty of time to write, revise and prepare it’s sixteen lines. In the end the poem he wrote for the occasion really probably is one of his worst works, and at 77 lines, longer than Blanco’s. I’m thankful he recited the older poem, and I still suspect that he may have come to his senses on that cold morning and though he could read just fine his new manuscript, thought better of it. Well, I find that story more entertaining at least.

    Again, thanks!

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