Without poetry, what omens does inauguration hold?

Updated 11:13 AM EST, Sat January 21, 2017

Story highlights

Poets have been a part of the spectacle of Inauguration Day since Robert Frost

Dove: Writers are not the stereotypical person writing in the attic or the ivory tower

CNN —  

Donald Trump’s inauguration will feature readings, musical performances and prayers, but like his Republican predecessors, no poets, according to the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies. This prompts the question: What impact does poetry — or its absence — have at moments of national significance?

Former Poet Laureate of the United States Rita Dove thinks not having poet is a meaningful moment missed. To her, poems are unique because we connect with them on an individual and a collective level. She says, “When you hear a poem, you both feel it enter you, but you also have to rise to meet it. That pulls the citizen in you out, into the air. That’s why I think it’s important and meaningful to have a poem read at a swearing-in of a president.” Dove read her poem, “Lady Freedom Among Us,” at the bicentennial of the laying of the cornerstone of the Capitol in 1993.

Rita Dove
Photo by Fred Viebahn
Rita Dove

Poets have been, for some inauguration watchers, a part of the spectacle of the occasion since Robert Frost, the first poet to appear at the ceremony, read for John F. Kennedy’s swearing-in in 1961. And yet, according to inaugural historian Jim Bendat, it hasn’t been a consistent feature of the day. Only Democrats – Kennedy, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama – have had a poet read from the steps of the Capitol.

The air was bitterly cold in January 2009 when poet Elizabeth Alexander read “Praise Song for the Morning,” composed for the occasion of Barack Obama’s first inauguration. She had the perhaps unenviable task of following the President as a speaker, but her placement on the program – between Obama’s inaugural address and the final benediction from the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery – offers some insight into what role poems have historically played in the swearing-in of presidents. Between the new leader’s vision for our nation and a prayer to keep it safe and free, there was poetry.

As Jim Bendat points out, to be an inaugural poet is to join an intimate group of only five, with only two – Alexander, and Richard Blanco, who read “One Today” when Barack Obama was inaugurated for his second term – still living. Bendat confirms that only Democratic presidents – JFK, Clinton, and Obama – have had a poet at their swearing-in.

Robert Frost actually prepared a poem (“Dedication,” later retitled “For John F. Kennedy His Inauguration”) for the occasion but chose in the moment (because, he later said and as Bendat outlines in his book, he couldn’t see to read the words he’d typed out on the page because of the bright sunlight) to recite from memory a shorter poem, “The Gift Outright.”

Frost’s improvisation aside, inaugural poets have delivered a work written for the occasion: Maya Angelou’s “On the Pulse of Morning,” Miller Williams’ “Of Hope and History” for Clinton – and Alexander and Blanco for Obama.

Dove, whose most recent book is Collected Poems: 1974-2004, is now the Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia. She spoke with me about the power poetry can have for everyday citizens and a commander in chief. The interview was lightly edited for clarity and length.

CNN: What stands out to you as meaningful in idea of a poem being read at the swearing-in of a president?

Rita Dove: What is meaningful about a poem being read at any event where a nation or a community is gathered is that a poem will make us feel like we are coming together. But at the same time, you can feel an incredibly individual sense of empathy. You feel like an individual but you are also part of a community. That is both immensely comforting and challenging and exhilarating.

When you look at the word inaugural – where does this word really come from, what does it really mean or stand for? – you see that its meaning is embedded deep in its etymology; ‘augur’, in ancient Rome, was the word for omen, for foreboding. It turns out that an inauguration was actually a situation where you would ask for a sign from the gods that you were doing something right.

What a poem does is remind us is that we are fallible and at the same time that we’re just trying to do the right thing. When you hear a poem, you both feel it enter you, but you also have to rise to meet it. That pulls the citizen in you out, into the air. That’s why I think it’s important and meaningful to have a poem read at a swearing-in of a president.

CNN: What prompted your participation in Writers Resist and why choose to read the poem you did?

Dove: For me, to participate was not only a call to literary arms – a way of saying that we are not going to sit back and roll over and do whatever the new government decides is best for us – but it also meant that writers were taking a step into the political arena. That writers are not the stereotypical person writing in the attic or the ivory tower. We are of the world in the world and write about that world and therefore it behooves us to get out there and talk. I was so happy that there was a venue where this could be expressed, not only in New York but all over the country.

I chose (to read) “Lady Freedom Among Us,” which is a poem I had written back when I was poet laureate. I felt moved to write it when I was newly appointed, (when) I was reflecting on what a poet laureate stands for. I had gotten so many letters and responses from perfect strangers, who pretty much told me how much it meant to have someone (like me) who could speak for them.

(The poem) is about the statue on top of the Capitol Building, Lady Freedom, who was erected sometime in the nineteenth century and had been taken down for cleaning (in 1993). It prompted me to think about what Lady Freedom would see if she were standing in the street today. I wrote it out of my heart. It just kind of bubbled up. When I was asked to read at the laying of the cornerstone (of the Capitol, in 1993), and I said I would read that poem, no one vetted the poem. They trusted me – this was the Clinton era – they trusted that as poet laureate, I would read something appropriate. And I found that so immensely hopeful. Now, we flash forward to 2017, and I feel we’re in a very different atmosphere. And the poem became less a poem about hope and being together and it was more a poem of warning, and a lament.

CNN: Thinking back, do any other selected works read on the day at Writers Resist stand out in your mind?

Dove: One that sticks out: (“Poem” by) Muriel Rukeyser – “I lived in the first century of world wars.” It’s an amazing poem because she wrote this poem many, many decades ago and yet it’s so appropriate today. She’s saying “the news would pour out of various devices,” and “I would call my friends on other devices” and everyone was “more or less mad.” And I just thought this is the feeling of the times now. Then it has that incredible last line: “I lived in the first century of these wars.” And you realize that she is prophesying that this will go on. And so that one has been haunting me.

The Langston Hughes poem, “Let America be America Again,” which I think reclaims the language that has been taken from us with “make America great again” – which is in a certain way a very negative statement. It assumes something is direly wrong with America, and what Langston Hughes’ poem is saying is that America was always America, just let it be, just open yourself to all the possibilities of America. That poem has always been an anthem for me.

And then when Rosanne Cash recited the Leonard Cohen song (“Democracy“) at the end of the gathering: “Democracy is coming to the USA.” She did just a gorgeous recitation. She could have sung it, but by saying it, you realize how potent the words are.

CNN: Writers Resist was so striking because in many ways, it is participatory poetry. Is there a poem (or a poet’s work) you could imagine Americans standing up where they are to read in public places on Inauguration Day?

Dove: How powerful that would be if you could do that, in the spirit of America. We are a nation of many different kinds of people and that’s what makes us, I believe, great and strong and infinitely imaginative. I would be reluctant to have to pick one poem or even five poems. It would be lovely if at that moment or at some point during the inauguration, Americans got up and read a poem that moved them. Instead of picking just one poem, let’s hear all of these voices – we can take it! We can process all of that. And in fact, I think that is what makes us a quite unique and wonderful experiment in human vitality is the fact that in this country we have so many different cultures and subcultures and yet we all feel like Americans. So let’s have all those voices. I might be out reading a poem as well (on Inauguration Day).

CNN: Do you have any thoughts or suggested poems for either the incoming or the outgoing President?

Dove: It’s very hard to second-guess what would make an impact on either of them. I realize that they are under enormous public pressure. I would suggest for (the incoming president) a little anthology of poems – poems by Americans, mainly poems by Americans who are not alive today so that it doesn’t become political. Poems that say: This is what Americans thought and hoped for and worried about, earlier in history. This is what we have to remember. These are the voices of the people – going to Emily Dickinson, going to Walt Whitman, going to Muriel Rukeyser, and Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks and Allen Ginsberg.

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Rather than saying “you must read Leonard Cohen” or saying “you must read Langston Hughes” to the president, I would give him a little anthology of poems and say, “Just carry them around with you. Live with them. Let them accompany you.” And he could find his own poem that could speak to him.