On January 20, 1961, Robert Frost read “The Gift Outright” at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy.
Bill Clinton had two inaugurations and two poets: Maya Angelou, who read “On the Pulse of Morning” in 1993, and Miller Williams, who read “Of History and Hope” in 1997.
Barack Obama had poets at both of his inaugurations: Elizabeth Alexander, reading “Praise Song for the Day” in 2009, and Richard Blanco, reading “One Today” in 2013.
Apparently, poetry on inauguration day is a Democratic thing. While poems have been read at only five swearings-in, all for Democratic presidents, they have come to feel like fixtures—necessary parts of a vital proceeding.
But I can’t imagine what on Earth a poet could say to solemnize the presidency of Donald J. Trump.
It has been widely reported that musicians aren’t exactly lining up to play the inauguration. Organizers have signed the 2010 second-place finisher from America’s Got Talent, a Bruce Springsteen cover band (called the B-Street Band), and a bunch of DJs, basically. Nutrisystem spokeswoman and 1970s television sensation Marie Osmond has kindly offered to perform (insert cricket chirp here). And it was reported yesterday—falsely, most likely—that Rapper Flo Rida had just agreed to play—for a cool million dollars. If true, I would recommend that Mr. Rida ask for his money up front. While Trump claims to be worth $4.5 billion, he is the guy who stiffed the USA Freedom Kids, that creepy little-girl song-and-dance troupe that performed at a few Trump campaign events. (They subsequently sued him for $15,000, but dropped their lawsuit very quickly when Trump was elected Most Powerful Man on Earth, as one does.)
Don’t bother picturing America’s poets sitting in their garrets, trying to find a rhyme for “bigly.” I know hundreds of poets, but I don’t know one who would dignify the occasion with verse, and I don’t expect any would be asked. (In case one is, may I suggest jiggly, or Piggly-Wiggly?)
That first inaugural piece, Frost’s small poem—only sixteen lines—offered a frank accounting of what it meant to be American: what that great privilege required of us, and what we as a nation might become.
The Gift Outright
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 were still 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.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.
A poem like “The Gift Outright” requires faith—faith of the poet in the vision of the president; faith of the president in the heart of the poet; and finally, faith of both poet and president in the people, and in our willingness to sacrifice and strive together, and not to make a mockery of high-minded words.
It is hard to have faith in a man like Donald J. Trump—someone who would oppress people for their religion, who believes climate change is a hoax, who brags about forcing his attention on women’s bodies, who refuses to release real medical records or tax returns, who abhors the free press, who doesn’t pay his debts, and who has packed his cabinet at every position with people who thumb their noses at our national institutions and the needs of the American people.
Poets, have at it. Pro-tip: A pertinent rhyme for “pussygrabber” is “jibber-jabber”; see @realDonaldTrump for examples to include.
Maybe it’s good advice that if we can’t say anything nice about someone, we shouldn’t say anything at all. But when it comes to inaugural poetry, I might suggest that if we can’t offer any vision that is hopeful or aspirational, then the day is not an occasion for verse.
In his inaugural poem, Blanco offered the following:
One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes
tired from work: some days guessing at the weather
of our lives, some days giving thanks for a love
that loves you back, sometimes praising a mother
who knew how to give, or forgiving a father
who couldn’t give what you wanted.
We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always—home,
always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country—all of us—
facing the stars
hope—a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it—together.
I’m not alone in my complete unwillingness to map or name a constellation with those people who voted for the KKK’s endorsed candidate: a deadbeat, a misogynist, and a Russian pawn. Blanco’s poem is beautiful and hopeful and uniting—but there is no place for a poem like his in the upcoming proceedings, as I’m sure the poet himself would agree. At most points in our nation’s history, we have felt that we were members of a “we”; we could work together, even amid disagreement, and we could all join together and work for all the good that we share. Together we would happily make personal sacrifices for the common good.
But today there is assuredly an us, and there is also a them. And there is no common American ground where decent people can stand alongside racists and misogynists. It is the good who deserve to be crowned in brotherhood. We stand apart, boldly and proudly, and we refuse to celebrate a grievous wrong.
And just to be clear, we’re keeping the poetry.
Top photo: The author. Bottom photo: Erin Kenny. Springfield, Missouri, USA.