The Lessons of Inaugural Poetry

by John J. Ronan

Gloucester Daily Times, Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016

Love and language create community. Poetry, exalted language, has been key to that creation in all ages, all cultures. In our own, it’s often a part of dedications, openings, church services, wedding toasts, and importantly, though less often, presidential inaugurations. An appropriate enough civic event, since “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” per Percy Shelley. In no other setting does poetry demonstrate its power to bind and elevate this glorious, motley republic.

During a term as poet laureate in Gloucester, MA, my commitment to civic poetry, a poetry of place and witness, grew stronger. By civic poetry, I mean poems written for the public on community topics. I mean poetry accessible to an attentive, general audience. And since it is often meant to be read in public, I mean poetry that relies heavily on sound and familiar forms: rhyming tricks, assonance, consonance, regular rhythms, refrains, the workhorse sonnet… And of course, civic poetry, like all poetry, is insightful and fresh, never talks down.

Civic poetry is often generated by news: Auden’s “September 1, 1939,” at the start of World War II, or the legion of poems written and still being written on Sandy Hook or Pulse night club atrocities. Another type includes bespoke, occasional poems. Like the inaugural poems of Elizabeth Alexander and Richard Blanco at the Obama ceremonies. Their poetry added perspective and scope, solemnity to the events. But these were only the fourth and fifth poets to read at a presidential inauguration.   The first was Robert Frost (Kennedy), then Maya Angelou (Clinton), and Miller Williams (Clinton). A sixth poet, Jimmy Carter’s fellow Georgian James Dickey, read at a gala the evening of the inauguration.

Besides accessibility and fresh form, there is one other necessary ingredient in civic poetry: hope. Not innocent, immature hope, nothing naive. It may be a battered hope, even diminished, but is not cowed or faint, remains brassy, unabashed. Civic poetry makes no apologies for believing in our stressed, wonderful experiment. As Miller Williams said, on January 20, 1997, in “Of History and Hope,”

We mean to be the people we meant to be,

to keep on going where we meant to go.

Hope can indeed sound naïve in times of political turmoil and violence, when hate threatens to outstrip our ability, even our desire, to build community.  But that is precisely when bonding is most needed. We hunger for love and the language of union, of peace for all, an end to cynicism. And in the words of Maya Angelou in “On the Pulse of Morning,” delivered January 20, 1993:

So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew,

The African and Native American, the Sioux,

The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek,

The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheikh,

The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,

The privileged, the homeless, the teacher.

This is the kind of poetry that gets through to and creates community. It is inclusive. It is necessary. James Dickey, on January 20, 1977, in “Strength of Fields,” closed:

Wild hope can always spring

from tended strength.  Everything is in that.

That and nothing but kindness.  More kindness, dear Lord

of the renewing green.  That is where it all has to start:

with the simplest things. More kindness will do nothing less

than save every sleeping one

and night-walking one

of us.

My life belongs to the world, I will do what I can.