One by one the lamps were all extinguished, except that Mr. Carmichael, who liked to lie awake a little reading Virgil, kept his candle burning rather longer than the rest… [Mr. Carmichael brought out a volume of poems that spring, which had an unexpected success. The war, people said, had revived their interest in poetry] (Woolf, To the Lighthouse). Much like the characters in Woolf’s novel, we too, only yesterday, took a step away from our four year war against lies and misinformation, against bigotry and racism, against incivility and immorality, seeking solace from an elder statesman and a young poet, and on a historic Inauguration day, we got more than we could have hoped for in the wisdom of President Biden and the spoken poetry of Amanda Gorman. Unity. Light. A reminder of our America.
John Kennedy was the first President who included a poet in the inaugural ceremony. He asked Robert Frost, who at 88 replied, “If you can bear at your age the honor of being made President of the United States, I ought to be able at my age to bear the honor of taking some part in your inauguration. I may not be equal to it but I can accept it for my cause — The Arts, Poetry, now for the first time taken into the affairs of statesmen”(Poetry.Org). The two men shared mutual affection and respect for each other, and a New England they both called home. As it turned out the glare of the sun hitting the snow made Frost’s reading his intended new inaugural poem impossible, so he recited from memory a favorite of Kennedy’s, “The Gift Outright.” But “Dedication” for its enduring theme is worth remembering today.
So much those heroes knew and understood,
I mean the great four, Washington,
John Adams, Jefferson, and Madison
So much they saw as consecrated seers
They must have seen ahead what not appears,
They would bring empires down about our ears
And by the example of our Declaration
Make everybody want to be a nation.
The poem ends with a poignant hope that the new president would lead the nation to the “next Augustan age” — “A golden age of poetry and power / Of which this noonday’s the beginning hour” (Wirzbicki). Today, on the threshold of much needed change, poetry and power are needed again.
The next president who invited a poet onto his inaugural stage was Clinton, in 1993. Those who witnessed Maya Angelou‘s powerful presence on the dais, and heard her manifesto “On the Pulse of Morning,” will never forget it; I know I will not. In the almost six minutes of verse we each latched on to what mattered, from our individual nows to learning to listening to A Rock, A River, A Tree.
Each of you, a bordered country,
Delicate and strangely made proud,
Yet thrusting perpetually under siege.
Your armed struggles for profit
Have left collars of waste upon
My shore, currents of debris upon my breast.
Yet today I call you to my riverside,
If you will study war no more. Come,
Clad in peace, and I will sing the songs
The Creator gave to me when I and the
Tree and the rock were one.
Before cynicism was a bloody sear across your
Brow and when you yet knew you still
The River sang and sings on.
The poem, “assures the audience that though its history is filled with “wrenching pain,” this history need not be repeated. Instead, America should learn from its mistakes and “clad [itself] in peace.” Arguing that the American people must “seek no haven” in the earth’s shadow, the speaker implies that in order to secure a future, people must stop hiding “face down in ignorance.” In other words, America can’t run from its mistakes, nor is there anywhere left to hide. Only by addressing its history can America hope to catch sight of its “distant destiny”—that is, a future which hasn’t been imagined yet” (LitCharts).
Here, on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes, and into
Your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
Two more poets followed: for Clinton, Miller Williams read his poem, “Of History and Hope” and Elizabeth Alexander read her poem, “Praise Song for the Day” for the historic and jubilant Inauguration of President Obama in 2009. Then, as only the fifth poet to read on such an occasion, Richard Blanco recited, “One Today.” Blanco echoed our American dreams as only the son of immigrants could, recalling collective aspiration and sorrow.
All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
the “I have a dream” we keep dreaming,
or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever.
A poet does all they can to knit us together even when dreams dry up or the gunman murders children. Their vision alone can make the call for Unity of the statesman a real and enduring promise; with words their imagery garners emotions, joy and pain pulled tight in verse. In the end, Blanco’s poem bridged gaps growing in our United States by reminding us of what we all share, our one sky, our one today.
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
Yesterday, 22 year old Amanda Gorman stepped up to the mic and brought forth her spoken word with sass and courage. Immediately, she graciously reminded us, “Somehow we weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished,” and with that we all took a step closer to hear the rest.
We are striving to forge our union with purpose.
To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man.
And so we lift our gaze, not to what stands between us, but what stands before us.
Just as President Biden once again reminded us that he will be the President for all Americans, Gorman asked us to imagine that kind of commitment, and challenged us to lose ourselves further in her vision.
Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true.
That even as we grieved, we grew.
That even as we hurt, we hoped.
That even as we tired, we tried.
That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious.
As the poets before this day stood in this same place did, Gorman reminded us of all our collective failings, our near misses, yet pushed us to regain what we know to hold dear. By the end of her poem, she had lifted us out of a state of perpetual grief into a brilliance only matched by her canary yellow coat and full winning smile.
Every breath from my bronze-pounded chest, we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one. We will rise from the golden hills of the West./ We will rise from the windswept Northeast where our forefathers first realized revolution./ We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the Midwestern states./ We will rise from the sun-baked South./ We will rebuild, reconcile, and recover./ And every known nook of our nation and every corner called our country, our people diverse and beautiful, will emerge battered and beautiful./ When day comes, we step out of the shade of flame and unafraid./ The new dawn balloons as we free it./ For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it./ If only we’re brave enough to be it.
As Woolf’s novel comes to close, the artist Lily stands on the lawn beside her easel with the poet, Mr. Carmichael by her side. The painting she had labored over since page one still challenges her.
They had not needed to speak. They had been thinking the same things and he had answered her without her asking him anything. He stood there as if he was spreading his hands over all the weakness and suffering of mankind: she thought he was surveying, tolerantly and compassionately, their final destiny. Now he crowned the occasion, she thought, when his hand slowly fell, as if she had seen him let fall from his great height a wreath of violets and asphodels which, fluttering slowly, lay at length upon the earth… With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.
With many of our government seats once again populated by competent individuals, our scientists and mathematicians relied on to present fact, our newsrooms and therefore our populace granted access to truth, and the vision that only art and poetry can imbue, what can’t our diverse and wondrous America attain? Unity for starters.