1961: Robert Frost – President-elect John F. Kennedy personally asked celebrated poet (and Kennedy supporter) Robert Frost to recite a poem at his presidential inauguration. Frost was the first poet to do so in the history of the event. During the 1961 inauguration, Frost recited "The Gift Outright." This is an excerpt from the poem:
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.
1993: Maya Angelou – After Frost in 1961, poets were left out of presidential inauguration ceremonies until Bill Clinton took the oath of office in 1993. Maya Angelou read "On the Pulse of Morning." A recording of the poem later won a Grammy for best spoken word. Here is an excerpt of the poem:
Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.
History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes upon
The day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.
1997: Miller Williams – For President Clinton's second inauguration, fellow Arkansan (and father of songwriter Lucinda Williams) Miller Williams read "Of History and Hope." Here is an excerpt from the poem:
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.
2009: Elizabeth Alexander – Twelve years later, Barack Obama asked Yale professor and poet Elizabeth Alexander to read at his presidential inauguration. Obama and Alexander (whose brother was a member of Obama's campaign team) met years before, when they were both working at the University of Chicago. Alexander recited "Praise song for the day" at the ceremony. Here is an excerpt from the poem:
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.
2013: Richard Blanco – This month, Richard Blanco will become the first gay, Latino poet to read at a U.S. presidential inauguration. His poetry centers on American identity, often exploring his own immigrant experience. At President Obama's second inauguration ceremony on January 21, Blanco will read one of three new poems he has written for the occasion.