Calling Republican Poets! Your Country (Might) Need You!
Will a poet read or recite a poem at the inauguration of president elect Donald Trump on January 20th? If they do, it would be to continue a uniquely American tradition, albeit one that has not been slavishly followed. Five poets have read or recited poems at US presidential inaugurations – and they have all been for Democrat presidents.
At the time of writing it seems unlikely. There are writers who support him – members of the Scholars and Writers for America (SWA) group, for example, but this mainly consists of academics and philosophers. It is hard to find many novelists – and harder still, poets – who have come out in support of Trump. Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert strip, didn’t sign the SWA’s statement of support for Trump, but did eventually say he’d vote for him. While Adams could be said to be working in fiction, it’s difficult to see how a cartoon strip author could provide the necessary gravitas for the occasion. Of course, others might argue – perhaps snobbishly – that a cartoon strip is about Trump’s level….
The involvement of poets began in 1961 when Robert Frost recited from memory his poem The Gift Outright at John F Kennedy’s inauguration. He had, in fact, written another poem for the occasion, called Dedication, but the elderly Frost – he was now 87 – could not read the words because of the bright January sunshine. He ended with a crowd-pleasing flourish, substituting ‘will’ for ‘would’ in the last line:
‘To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she will become.’
As a footnote, it is interesting to ponder the similarities between the opening of this poem – ‘The land was ours before we were the land’s’ – and Woody Guthrie’s famous This Land is Your Land, which opens: ‘This land is your land, this land is my land’. Frost wrote his poem in 1935, but it wasn’t published until 1942; Guthrie wrote his song in 1940, but didn’t record it until 1945. A curious case of artistic coincidence?
In 1993, Maya Angelou read On the Pulse of Morning at Bill Clinton’s first inaugural and at his second, in 1997, Clinton’s long-standing Arkansas friend Miller Williams read Of History and Hope, with its opening that has echoes of Whitman’s I Hear America Singing:
‘We have memorized America,
how it was born and who we have been and where…’
Next came the young, Harlem-born poet Elizabeth Alexander who read Praise Song for the Day at Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009. It has this lovely ending:
‘In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,
praise song for walking forward in that light.’
At Obama’s second inauguration, in 2013, Richard Blanco became the first Latino and first openly gay poet to read at a presidential inauguration. His poem One Today has the same geographic sweep as Whitman or Guthrie, as if the poet is hovering over the country:
‘One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,
peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces
of the Great Lakes, spread simple truth
across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies.’
Does the fact that all these poets read at inaugurations of Democrat presidents mean they are Democrats themselves? Angelou was for sure; so too Miller Williams, who campaigned for Clinton; we can assume Elizabeth Alexander is, since she is a friend of Obama’s from the University of Chicago, where they were both on the staff, and her parents were both active in the civil rights movement (they held her, aged one, to hear Martin Luther King’s famous ‘I have a dream’ speech). It also seems highly unlikely that Blanco is a Republican. Which just leaves that American icon, Robert Frost. At first, one assumes he must have been a Democrat; after all, Kennedy, used to end his campaign speeches by thanking those who had come and then quoting Frost, from Stopping by Woods, about having ‘miles to go before I sleep’.
But dig around a little and it’s not so clear. Jay Parini in Robert Frost: A Life notes that Frost was not a fan of the New Deal of the thirties – the social security measures brought in by the Democrat president, Roosevelt: ‘[Frost] maintained his anti-New Deal conservatism to the end,’, writes Parini, ‘believing it was better for one to provide for oneself and one’s family than to have the state do it. He hated the notion of the collective, of the masses.”
He also hated any ‘ism’, apparently, preferring to think of himself as a “lone striker” and expressing a loathing for socialism, communism, anarchism and even humanism, according to Parini. He was more akin to a libertarian.
However, some poets in the US who are not Trump supporters, have been wondering whether they should read if they are asked, despite their feelings. The San Francisco poet and author Dean Rader first said he would not read, but later told The Washington Post: “I think we have an obligation as artists to insert our voice into the larger conversation about our country and our culture. At some level, the inauguration of a president is an affirmation of democracy. On a larger scale, it’s not even about a particular person, but about an ideal – a philosophical project.”
They recognize too, the platform it would provide, how it could give poetry the kind of publicity it so rarely receives. The other question to consider is this: should a non-Trump supporting poet read simply out of respect for the office of president, as part of the respectful handing over of power that Obama talked about? It is interesting that one of the first former presidents to RSVP to the inauguration was Jimmy Carter, certainly no Trump supporter.
But with barely a fortnight to go, it does seem unlikely that any poet will be invited, or indeed accept. Which makes the work of the five poets who have read even more special.
The ‘inauguration’ poems can be found in these books: The Poetry of Robert Frost (Henry Holt); On the Pulse of Morning, Maya Angelou, (Random House); Some Jazz A While: Collected Poems, Miller Williams, (University of Illinois Press); Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990-2010, Elizabeth Alexander (Graywolf Press); One Today, Richard Blanco, (University of Pittsburgh Press), and also One Today, Richard Blanco, illustrated by Dav Pilkey (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)