Poetry In The Public Space

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For lots of reasons, good and bad, poetry is not thought of as a popular medium. This is true despite so many great, plain-spoken American poets writing right now–Tony Hoagland, Matthew Dickman, and Louise Gluck, to name just three.

But the Presidential Inauguration is still a time when the nation reflects on poetry. This time the honor of the inaugural poem has gone to Elizabeth Alexander. As we await her offering, here are a couple of the better offerings from inaugurations past. The first from the poem Robert Frost read in 1961 at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy:

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.
Something we were withholding made us weak.
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.

And then this from Maya Angelou at Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993:

Lift up your eyes upon
The day breaking for you.

Give birth again
To the dream.

Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands.

Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts
Each new hour holds new chances
For new beginnings.

Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
To brutishness.

The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.
Here, on the pulse of this fine day
You may have the courage
To look up and out upon me, the
Rock, the River, the Tree, your country.

No less to Midas than the mendicant.

No less to you now than the mastodon then.

Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes, into
Your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope
Good morning.