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The Irish For: Hope and history rhyme - what will Biden’s inaugural poem be?

Darach Ó Séaghdha looks to the past and wonders what kind of poetic tones we can expect at the forthcoming Biden inauguration.

Darach Ó Séaghdha Writer

POETRY AND POLITICS make odd fellows at the best of times. While a poet can address political topics, satirise public figures or reflect upon political events, the matter of celebrating a newly elected leader can be tricky.

Wouldn’t it be safer to write a poem about them once they have passed away and their legacy is known?

The honour of the poet laureate can be a poison chalice. Similarly, politicians can be reluctant to declare their affection for a working poet who may yet criticise them publicly.

In a few short weeks, the inauguration of a new American president will take place. It’s safe to assume that Joe Biden, a man whose love of literature is well known and who ran a campaign where the poetry of Seamus Heaney featured prominently, will restore the tradition of having a poet read a verse on the occasion of his inauguration.

The JFK effect

The tradition of an inaugural poem dates back to 1961. While inaugurations had been televised before, John F Kennedy understood the power of that medium better than his predecessors and was intent on using the occasion to set a tone.

kennedy-sworn-in-as-35th-u-s-president John F. Kennedy delivers his Inaugural Address after being sworn-in as the 35th President of the United States on the East Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. on Friday, January 20, 1961. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Like Biden, Kennedy was inclined to finish speeches with lines of poetry, specifically “but I have promises to keep and many miles to go before I sleep”.

It just so happened that Robert Frost, the author of these lines, was an admirer of the young senator and agreed to compose a poem for the occasion.

The poem he wrote, “Dedication” was 77 lines long that made direct references to Kennedy’s achievements so far (such as his own writings and his narrow election win) putting these in the context of America’s own evolution from colony to superpower and how there was still a place for art in this scientific age.

However, the 86 year-old poet was unable to read the poem on stage due to his poor eyesight and the harsh reflection of the sunlight on the now. Instead, he recited a shorter poem, “The Gift Outright” from memory.

JFKWHP-AR7118-C JFK presents the Congressional Gold Medal to Robert Frost, 1962. Source: jfklibrary.org

The drama of the poet going off-script to recite a poem by heart made for great television, and the choice of a poem about America rather than an ode to the new president set the tone for such readings in future (an ode to Donald Trump in the style of a Scottish ballad was written in celebration of his election, but was not used on the day itself).

Capturing the mood

When Bill Clinton became president in 1993, he deliberately invited comparisons to Kennedy. One of the many ways he did this was to invite a writer to read a poem when he was sworn in.

Angelou_at_Clinton_inauguration(1) Maya Angelou recites a poem at the inauguration of Bill Clinton, 1993. Source: commons.wikimedia

The writer he chose was Maya Angelou and the poem she read, “On The Pulse Of Morning” is considered in some ways a response to, or even a disagreement with, Frost’s “The Gift Outright”.

The central image – a massive rock offering shelter in its shadow but the promise of a panoramic view at its summit – shares the earlier poem’s feelings of hope and progress.

But while Frost described colonialism and westward expansion in approving terms, controversially referring to the unconquered territory as “unstoried, artless, unenhanced”, Angelou’s verse considers the enormity and cost of what has gone before to bring America as far as today, even asking for responsibility to be taken:

“The Rock cries out to us today,
You may stand upon me,
But do not hide your face”.

These ideas were expressed again in “Praise Song for the Day”, Elizabeth Alexander’s poem on the occasion of Barack Obama’s inauguration, which reflects on the small and ordinary tasks we perform every day and the great sacrifices and feats that made those possible.

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However, the critical response to this work was not as enthusiastic as that which greeted the earlier poems. While we don’t know yet who Biden will pick, it is safe to assume that the chosen poet will follow along with these themes.

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About the author:

Darach Ó Séaghdha  / Writer

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