The Hazards of an Inauguration Sans Poetry

When we do have poetry ringing from austere offices, what do we gain? If the launch of our progress comes from the incantations of a poet, so be it. After all, who better than a poet to turn a last word into our first step?
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A couple of weeks ago, we heard the poet Richard Blanco deliver "One Today" as part of Pres. Obama's second inauguration. Mixing our everyday lives with the universal, Blanco wove together his personal story as a Cuban exile and America's own becoming -- offering the immigrant success narrative even as we all -- in our diversity -- work to all connect as one.

Of course, since then a number of commentators -- particularly in literary communities -- have spoken to "the hazards of inaugural poetry."

True: poetry on demand is ordinarily the sphere of Hallmark, weddings, or similar maudlin canvases. Indeed, inaugural poetry can churn cliché into grand cliché, poetry into the prosaic -- leaving lovers of language in lyrical lament.

And yet, what do we miss when we do not have a poetry in our public sphere? More importantly, when we do have poetry ringing from such austere offices, what do we gain?

The first inaugural poet, Robert Frost, may have said we enable "A golden age of poetry and power/ Of which this noonday's the beginning hour."

Frost, who decorated Kennedy's 1961 inauguration after having been a vocal campaign supporter, meant to offer "Dedication" to evoke the onset of a new Augustan Age a fresh-faced Kennedy would usher in -- tradition in new incarnation. By chance, "Dedication," with its hum-drum narratives of heroes and glories, such as the airplane, its messiness of democracy -- and redemptive power of election -- did not make it to the inaugural. Sun-glare off snow prohibited Frost from its reading: he recited "The Gift Outright" instead -- evoking colonial triumph and manifest destiny -- our westward expansion, a sea to shining sea. Never mind the residents of the land before colonials: later inaugural poets would remedy such gloss.

Despite a faulty vision of America being birthed from blank slate, Frost was on to something: the power of the arts to work hand-in-hand with the state and the people's perpetual work in nation-building. His reference to an Augustan Age, with its epics and expansions, mirrored an America that had just elected its first (and only, to date) Roman Catholic as president, a youthful visionary set to enact change. Poetry could offer vision, the pen behind new scepters.

And yet the times brought much to rue: assassinations, struggles for equity, and an absence of official poetry. Barring James Dickey's metaphysical quest for place and purpose in President Carter's 1977 inaugural gala with "The Strength of Fields", for more than 30 years after Frost's pulpit, poetry did not appear in the inauguration ceremony itself: our times not so august after all.

Nonetheless, in poetry's inaugural return in 1993, with President Clinton's first swearing-in, Maya Angelou re-animated the role of poetry as vision for a nation yet becoming. Her "On the Pulse of Morning," complemented Clinton's call for inclusion while offering recognition to the dark bowels of U.S. nation-building, including the decimation and forced removal of Tribes and the arrival of slaves from transatlantic ships. Through her presence, Angelou underscored Clinton's commitment to a broader America. Through her personal work of survival, she blazed a call of action for the people -- for us to "Give birth again/To the dream."

Angelou vaulted our personal responsibility to the universal ideals of our nation, a theme Miller Williams echoed in his 1997 poem for Clinton's second inauguration, "Of History and Hope." Williams, an Arkansas civil rights activist akin to Clinton, evoked the continuity of the search for equality and meaningful access. We are not there yet, he and Angelou intoned -- the dream is yet being dreamt.

Indeed, after assassinations, the civil rights movement, the women's movement, a military and flower power age, it is no wonder that Angelou and Williams sought to re-view U.S. history and proffer a new (old) frame more suited to our times -- that of we, the people, making change. Or as Williams evoked, "We mean to be the people we meant to be/to keep on going where we meant to go."

Such is the work of movement-building -- to keep moving. Such is the work of poetry, to keep us attuned to our times, to grace us with a vision of our people's work -- a vision at times in synch with, at times contested to, our nation.

So then what does inaugural poetry say of our current times? With President Obama's first inauguration, Elizabeth Alexander's 2009 "Praise Song for the Day" re-attested to the people's work to "Love beyond marital, filial, national." In a poem more mediation than rally cry, Alexander took forth an ethos of hope and change in Obama's election -- the will of the people returned as the people's will.

And, yet, it is Blanco, our most recent poet on dais, with his specific references and his presence, who most buttresses the current political agenda, a synching with President Obama's charge for gay rights, gun control, immigration reform. Blanco, whose opening sweeps of land echo in slant Frost's survey of the U.S., offers a new chance at -- and riff with -- the vision of the poet alongside our statesmen.

It should not surprise us that inaugural poetry brings us progress narratives. We all know America loves a winner. It should not surprise us that inaugural poetry brings us cliché, in the context of the cliché that is inauguration, that is America.

What is more surprising, however, is that inaugural poetry offers us an attention to the vision of what is yet to manifest and how we must work to get there. The poet in the public sphere provides us -- the average citizens -- a way to see our own role in the work of change, in the work of building the America we want, a way to cross myth and metaphor in our own everyday lives.

Occasional poems, then, may not exist for specific close reading but for casting a broad vision to our times. While striving for the most common denominator, inaugural poets kindle each of us as public selves. These poems of obligatory praise offer a call to action, move the spirit to understand our work as individuals in the building of our own democracy.

With inaugural poetry, we need not read between the lines. What we must do is act after the lines, be the kind of engaged citizen Walt Whitman imagined in his 19th century renditions of a new America.

Like inaugural poetry-haters, I have a list of things I'd rather not see survive this Administration: drones, fiscal cliffs and political gridlock.

But I also have a list of continuances: change, leadership and the vision of our own citizenry power -- the power to make a difference, to lead, to share, and to make our individual and collective journeys of becoming encompassing, just, and poetic.

And if the launch of our progress comes from the incantations of a poet, so be it. After all, who better than a poet to turn a last word into our first step?

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