TOUTED AS IRELAND’S poet-president, Michael D Higgins will be inaugurated today and he may mark the occasion with some words from his own poetry collections.
If he does, it would not be entirely without precedent.
Although Mary Robinson asked poet Máire Bradshaw to read the Presidential Poem during the inauguration ceremony, in her own speech she quoted a line from Seamus Heaney’s work, as well as the 14th century poem “Is D’Éireann Mé”.
However, it is in America that the tradition of inauguration poems was, well, inaugurated. In 1961, John F Kennedy invited celebrated poet Robert Frost to read at his ceremony.
Poetry reminds man of his limitations, wrote John F. Kennedy in an article posthumously published in The Atlantic in 1964.
It also reminds man of the richness and diversity of his experience.
…When power corrupts, poetry cleanses, for art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstones of our judgement.”
However, the first inauguration reading on 20 January 1961 did not go as planned. Frost intended to read aloud his new poem “Dedication” but the 87-year-old could not see the typed-out words because of the glare of the sun on that bright, snowy day in Washington DC.
Instead, he recited “The Gift Outright” by memory. Later, he gifted a copy of the original poem, “Dedication”, to the Kennedys. Before he framed the paper, he wrote the following on the back: “For Jack. First thing I had framed to be put in your office. First thing to be hung there.”
The new poem was an unexpected piece of work by Frost, who had previously refused to compose commemorative verses.
This copy – on which the poet wrote his own notes that morning – was given to Kennedy’s secretary of the interior Stewart Udall:
Permission to reproduce granted by the Estate of Robert Frost and Henry Holt and Co. (From the Stewart L. Udall Collection).
Poetry readings seem to be a custom more favoured by the Democratic Party in the US and it was some years before a poet took to the stage again.
In 1977, James Dickey read a poem at the gala following Jimmy Carter’s official inauguration. “The Strength of Fields” focused on the “profound, unstoppable craving of nations” that was part of the new president’s role.
The tradition was revived again by Bill Clinton after his election in 1992. He asked writer Maya Angelou to address the crowds on the Mall during his inauguration on 20 January 1993. The acclaimed author and poet recited her poem “On the Pulse of Morning”:
In 1997, Arkansas poet Miller Williams wrote a poem that was commissioned for the occasion of Clinton’s second inauguration. He read “Of History and Hope” aloud:
…We mean to be the people we meant to be,
to keep on going where we meant to go.
But how do we fashion the future? Who can say how
except in the minds of those who will call it Now?
The children. The children. And how does our garden grow?
With waving hands — oh, rarely in a row –
and flowering faces. And brambles, that we can no longer allow.”
Just three days after his election, Obama was snapped carrying a book of poems by Derek Walcott, the West Indies Nobel laureate. His intention to carry on the Democratic tradition of inauguration poetry was sealed.
His poet of choice was Elizabeth Alexander. The Yale professor said it was “overwhelming, humbling and joyful” to play such a role in Obama’s inauguration.
Her inaugural poem, “Praise Song for the Day”, came under fire for being a little too dry. As one radio station in Jersey City ineloquently put it, “it sucked”. So, the New York-based WFMU asked their listeners to “remix it, shred it, speed it up, slow it down, reconstruct it, warp it, bend it, twist it, scream it…you get the idea”.
They received 51 entries decent enough to make their website list. The most listened to at the time was Jonathan Wall’s alphabetised version:
So now Michael D has a decision to make. He could use his own works – which some have deemed “strikingly poor” – or look to the rich list of Irish scribes to mark the occasion.
What do you think – should Michael D pen his own words, ask another successful poet to read aloud or forgo the idea of inauguration poetry altogether?
Join Christine Bohan on our liveblog to find out exactly what happens.