Midday on Monday, the relatively unknown Cuban-American poet Richard Blanco will be the fifth poet to read at the inauguration of an American President, joining the company of Robert Frost (Kennedy, 1961), Maya Angelou (Clinton, 1993), Miller Williams (Clinton, 1997), and Elizabeth Alexander (Obama, 2009). Blanco will read an original composition, just as Angelou, Williams, and Alexander have done before him. Frost also wrote a new poem for the occasion, but he was eighty-six at the time, and, famously, the frigid, blustery weather and glaring sun in Washington that day made reading difficult. So he abandoned the new poem and recited one that Kennedy had requested, “The Gift Outright,” from memory.
The first lines from the poem that Frost didn’t read that day make note of the novelty of inviting a poet to a convocation of the government: “Summoning artists to participate / In the august occasions of the state / Seems something artists ought to celebrate.” It ends with the even more optimistic idea of the aims of art and politics uniting: “A golden age of poetry and power / Of which this noonday’s the beginning hour.” Perhaps Frost, in his final years, was merely flattered by the attention, or won over by Kennedy’s charms, and thus spun off his poem in a hopeful mood.
Yet, in many ways, Kennedy’s election did seem to herald a kind of enlightened, cosmopolitan modernity—an ethos that was enhanced by the appearance of a poet, even if that poet was not a controversial young upstart but, rather, a national treasure. (It was Frost, not Ginsberg. up there on the dais, after all.) Frost’s optimism, seen through the decade of the Vietnam conflict that would follow, now seems misplaced. Poetry and power were kept, as they often are, at quite a distance. And be wary of golden ages: there would not be another inaugural poet for more than three decades.
Even so, Frost’s appearance was momentous, and the obscuring sunlight delivered the country a better blessing in “The Gift Outright,” a poem that, like much of Frost, might be misread as forthright and simple—a mere patriotic ode to an American birthright. But a close read shows that the verse, with its most resonant phrase, “land vaguely realizing westward,” suggests the lurching and darker qualities of Manifest Destiny, and plants doubt about the supposed purity of the American experiment. It is that doubt—poetry’s ability to muddy a pat phrase or dislodge an accepted truism with an unexpected word or other sleight of hand—that made Frost’s performance resonate. He introduced, if only for a moment, a twitch of dissent amidst the pomp.
Eight years earlier, following the election of Dwight Eisenhower over Adlai Stevenson, the “age of poetry and power” might have seemed a cruel fantasy. That November, the poet Robert Lowell summed up the alienation that many artists and intellectuals felt, writing in a letter from Rome to the Dutch literary critic W. F. van Leeuwen:
The election is symbolically discouraging. We were frantic Stevenson fans, buying three papers a day, reading the complete speeches, etc. I think Stevenson was the most human, intelligent and decent person who has run for president in my lifetime. Eisenhower isn’t a bad man, I think, just formless, banal, efficient—smiles without personal wit or passions. He’s so appallingly typical—I come back to my figure of a country looking at itself in the mirror for instruction.
Two weeks earlier, in a letter to the poet Allen Tate written just a day after the election, Lowell composed a bitter rhyming ditty about Eisenhower, set to the tune of “Yankee Doodle”:
Came to Boston, gave his spiel—
Smart as a buck pheasant:
All those teeth inside his smile—
My God, they’re incandescent!
His face is on your TV screen,
Got up with pancake powder;
When he’s scraped the barrel clean,
You’ll see him swim in chowder.
“See me like an octopus,
A-hugging up Bill Jenner;
I’d like to bust the bugger’s puss,
But Mamie loves a winner.
“My ghosts have told me something new:
I’m marching to Korea;
I cannot tell you what I’ll do
Crusading’s the idea
Yankee Doodle keep it up etc.
Early the next year, Lowell had harnessed his dismay into a restrained and sombre poem, “Inauguration Day: January 1953,” which was published in its final form at the end of the year in the Partisan Review. Lowell locates the loose sonnet in a place of estrangement, New York City, which was Stevenson country and becomes, in the poem, a kind of national government in exile:
The snow had buried Stuyvesant.
The subways drummed the vaults. I heard
the El’s green girders charge on Third,
Manhattan’s truss of adamant,
that groaned in ermine, slummed on want.
Cyclonic zero of the world,
God of our armies, who interred
Cold Harbor’s blue immortals, Grant!
Horseman, your sword is in the groove!
The verse offers the sweep of history, beginning with the statue of Peter Stuyvesant, the last of the city’s Dutch commanders, and ends with the monument to Grant, who, like Eisenhower, was another general-turned-President. Yet it recalls Grant not as the dogged savior of the Union but as the butcher of Cold Harbor, the man who ordered his men to a mostly senseless death. Eisenhower appears at the end, summoned to lead a nation imbued with the memory of those deaths, and all those that came before and followed:
Ice, ice. Our wheels no longer move.
Look, the fixed stars, all just alike
as lack-land atoms, split apart,
and the Republic summons Ike,
the mausoleum in her heart.
As different as “Inauguration Day: January 1953” is from the spontaneous bit of doggerel that Lowell had worked up a few months before, you can trace how the first bout of inspiration was molded to such a precise and haunting end. The only mention of Eisenhower in the poem comes in the form of the mass-market nickname “Ike,” echoing Lowell’s earlier riff on the President as more television personality than man. And it’s easy to draw the line from “crusading’s the idea” to the images of a country frozen and static as it is swept along on its historical arc of death—from Cold Harbor to Inchon and on down the line.
Had Lowell been invited to Washington, perhaps he would have composed a different poem. (Though likely not, judging by his refusal of an invitation from Lyndon Johnson, in 1965, to take part in a White House arts festival based on his disagreement with the President’s foreign-policy decisions.) Or else the poem might have been clipped of its context, leaving us only to remember “the Republic summons Ike,” with its martial, celebratory tone. Even though no poet spoke at Eisenhower’s inauguration on January 20, 1953, there was verse infused into the ceremonies.
When Eisenhower was given the oath of office, he swore on two Bibles. The first was open to Psalm 127:1: “Except the Lord build the house, / they labour in vain that build it: / except the Lord keep the city, / the watchman waketh but in vain.” And the second was II Chronicles 7:14: “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.” Those words, had they been read aloud, might have startled the President’s blindest supporter and fiercest critic in equal measure. Poetry has coiled within its words the power to unsettle. Better to just cover it with your hand.
Lowell’s “Inauguration Day: January 1953,” meanwhile, is perhaps the greatest inauguration poem that was never delivered at the Capitol. It is concise, yet concerns itself with the wide and fraught swathe of American history. And, like the four official inaugural poems that have so far been delivered, it marks a moment of supposed renewal with darker tones of the past, and with death. The official inaugural poems feel a bit laden with their duties as civics lessons. They must appeal to a wide audience, honor a moment of agreed-upon significance, and downplay friction and ambiguity. Yet, for all their collective shortcomings, the way inaugural poems gesture to the past is what gives them strength.
Frost surveys the country’s colonial origins, the world’s entombed explorers, and the nation’s long-dead founders. Angelou reaches further back, summoning first the dinosaurs and their “hastening doom” and then the great names of the Native American tribes, diminished and depleted. Williams invokes “the great and all the anonymous dead.” Alexander, marking a moment not just of political ascendancy but also deeper social meaning, is more insistent: “Say it plain: that many have died for this day. / Sing the names of the dead who brought us here.”
If these poems move a bit too self-consciously toward hope, they nonetheless still leave room for meditations on a country with a complicated past and a tangled present, which requires much of the person elected to lead it. They hint at the sense of the sometimes dreadful office of President, as when Whitman looked at Lincoln upon attending his second inauguration and saw him “drest all in black, with white kid gloves and a claw-hammer coat, receiving, as in duty bound, shaking hands, looking very disconsolate, and as if he would give anything to be somewhere else.”
On Monday, Blanco is unlikely to conclude that at the second inauguration of President Obama, “the watchman waketh but in vain.” His selection is mostly being parsed for its cultural import: he is the first Latino poet to be invited to read, and the youngest, and is openly gay. Those are important firsts, but, as he reads, we should listen for the moments of friction, when a line turns against itself and against our expectations, and says something unexpected about its writer, its subject, and its country. If Blanco’s poem doesn’t leave space for a moment of doubt about the past and the future, then he might as well be singing “Yankee Doodle.”