By Bernard Mergen
THE ANNOUNCEMENT a few weeks ago that President Obama had chosen Richard Blanco, an openly gay Cuban-American, to compose and read a poem at his second inaugural was greeted with skepticism by the New York Times. Was Obama's choice payback for the support from gay and Hispanic voters, or did the President and his advisers really believe that the 44-year-old author of four books of poetry deserved the honor based on literary merit?
Performance by poets at Presidential inaugurals began with Robert Frost's recitation of "The Gift Outright" at John F. Kennedy's 1961 festivities. The 86-year-old Frost had written an "occasional poem" that is, a poem written specifically for a public ceremony or occasion, but the freezing wind made it difficult for him to hold the pages and he resorted to reciting one of his better-known poems from memory. By all accounts it was a better poem, one that celebrated the fusion of an immigrant nation with the physical environment and the subsequent "enhancement" of the land by its artists and storytellers.
In the turbulent years following Kennedy's assassination and Lyndon Johnson's election, the appeal of an inaugural poem waned. Jimmy Carter apparently gave it no thought, nor did Ronald Reagan, nor George H. W. Bush. In 1993, however, Bill Clinton revived the idea and asked the 64-year-old multi-talented memoirist and poet Maya Angelou to present a poem for his inauguration in 1993. The result was a much longer (109 lines to Frost's 16) and self-conscious piece titled, "On the Pulse of Morning."
Using a rock, a river, and a tree as metaphors for historical continuity and human triumph in the face of suffering, and fragments from old Negro spirituals, Angelou expanded Frost's theme of a nation of immigrants and the land they settled. As an African-American woman, she depicted the coming together of European, African, Asian, and Native American people as an ongoing struggle, not, as Frost would have it, an inevitable consequence of colonial conquest and a war of independence.
Clinton's re-election provided him with the opportunity to be more whimsical in choosing a poet for the occasion. His pick was fellow Arkansan Miller Williams, a 66-year-old teacher, editor, and poet, possibly best known as the father of rock-folk-country singer Lucinda Williams. Miller called his 34-line poem "Of History and Hope," probably a sly reference to the President's birthplace. The poem continues his predecessors' history lessons, echoing Frost's reference to the "unstoried" past and Angelou's use of "old songs." Miller asks the question unspoken in the earlier poems: "where are we going... how do we fashion the future?" Williams answers his question by calling history the "gift" we give our children so "they will not forget" the ideals, struggles, and sacrifices of the past.
Twelve years -- two Bush inaugurals -- passed with nary a limerick. In 2009 poetic hope was restored when Barack Obama selected a 46-year-old professor of African-American Studies at Yale, Elizabeth Alexander, to take up the challenge. Again, with a nod to past inaugural poets, Alexander sought to place the event in the context of the nation's multi-cultural myths and stories. The title of her poem, "Praise Song for the Day," draws on a form of African poetry, the praise song, which is normally a series of laudatory epithets to God, man, animals, or plants. In Alexander's hands the praise focuses on the speech, the music, and the work of generations of Americans who have left a legacy of possibility -- "any thing can be made, any sentence begun."
Some have criticized the effort to bring poetry into this very political occasion. Four years ago the New Yorker decried Professor Alexander's selection without waiting to hear her poem, because she had been the President's friend and neighbor in Chicago. Today we will all have the opportunity to hear and later to read what Richard Blanco has contributed to the tenuous, but potentially significant, inaugural tradition.
Tenuous because only three presidents in the past 52 years have had the interest in this often ridiculed literary form to invite voters to share their pleasure. Significant, because as I think I have shown, the inaugural poets have taken their role seriously and striven for a thoughtful conversation about the meaning of the United States of America, its politics and its art. We can glimpse in their poems the values that hold the nation together, not the momentary disputes that seem to tear us apart.
Mergen, a professor emeritus from George Washington University, lives in Franklin.