the rare gift of inaugural poems

“The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives and the dreams never die.” ~ Edward Kennedy

 

 

OF HISTORY AND HOPE
by Miller Williams

We have memorized America,
how it was born and who we have been and where.
In ceremonies and silence we say the words,
telling the stories, singing the old songs.
We like the places they take us. Mostly we do.
The great and all the anonymous dead are there.
We know the sound of all the sounds we brought.
The rich taste of it is on our tongues.
But where are we going to be, and why, and who?
The disenfranchised dead want to know.
We mean to be the people we meant to be,
to keep on going where we meant to go.

But how do we fashion the future? Who can say how
except in the minds of those who will call it Now?
The children. The children. And how does our garden grow?
With waving hands — oh, rarely in a row —
and flowering faces. And brambles, that we can no longer allow.
Who were many people coming together
cannot become one people falling apart.
Who dreamed for every child an even chance
cannot let luck alone turn doorknobs or not.
Whose law was never so much of the hand as the head
cannot let chaos make its way to the heart.
Who have seen learning struggle from teacher to child
cannot let ignorance spread itself like rot.
We know what we have done and what we have said,
and how we have grown, degree by slow degree,
believing ourselves toward all we have tried to become —
just and compassionate, equal, able, and free.

All this in the hands of children, eyes already set
on a land we never can visit — it isn’t there yet —
but looking through their eyes, we can see
what our long gift to them may come to be.
If we can truly remember, they will not forget.

~ from Some Jazz A While: Collected Poems (University of Illinois Press, 1999)

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With the General Election underway, I decided to reread all five presidential inaugural poems, seeking inspiration and a renewed sense of hope. Hard to believe there have only been four inaugural poets since Robert Frost recited “The Gift Outright” in 1961. All five were commissioned by Democratic presidents.

While I remember well Maya Angelou reading “On the Pulse of Morning” for President Clinton’s first inauguration (1993), for some strange reason I don’t remember Miller Williams reading “Of History and Hope” when President Clinton took the oath of office again in 1997.

Williams’s poem really resonated with me, especially these lines:

Who were many people coming together
cannot become one people falling apart.
Who dreamed for every child an even chance
cannot let luck alone turn doorknobs or not.
Whose law was never so much of the hand as the head
cannot let chaos make its way to the heart.

 

 

‘Falling apart’ is what’s been happening the past four years. We seem to be in free fall — not only physically ill because of the pandemic, but economically strapped, morally bereft, and truly sick at heart.

We’re grieving not only physical lives lost, but the loss of a way of life most of us took for granted, and the realization that our government seems hopelessly broken with partisan stalemate, rampant self interest, and complicit corruption.

There is the heartbreak of learning that you don’t really know some of the friends and/or family members you thought you knew, or realizing how many fellow citizens are susceptible to fear mongering, easily subscribing to a cult mentality promulgating the worst, most vile aspects of human nature.

And it is especially devastating when systemic racism is called to account via peaceful protest, and the President blatantly ignores the collective wail of Americans who have legitimate grievances, demonizing them as anarchists of the radical left.

 

“American Uprising” by Kadir Nelson

 

Williams also mentions the future and our obligation to leave a proper legacy for our children. And while I despair over how we’ve failed them, I’m heartened that so many young people are now embracing political activism. Refusing to accept the status quo, they are determined to fashion a future they want and deserve, a future where the words, “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” are defended and actualized across the land.

This poem reminds us that the America we’ve memorized — likely idealized — is a work in progress. As dynamics shift and we learn how to work more effectively towards a more perfect union, we must let go of antiquated illusions when stark reality demands our attention and active participation in the democratic process. We’ve reached a tipping point where unconscionable racial, economic, and social injustices must be addressed.

However painful it may be, we should look upon this tumultuous time as an unprecedented opportunity — to do the right thing, the humane and just thing, if we wish to preserve our democracy. The convergence of so many crises, exacerbated by the clear lack of leadership and pervasive corruption of elected officials has presented the challenge of our lifetimes. Are we up to it? Though we may be sad, weary, demoralized, frustrated, confused, and angry, the answer is YES.

Hope, possibility, and change are always on the horizon.

Who were many people coming together will not fall apart. Not on our watch.

 

“After the Storm” by Kadir Nelson

 

I’ve already voted and now look forward to listening to the sixth inaugural poet, commissioned by our next Democratic President in January 2021. I have sorely missed hearing words that celebrate our diversity, call for unity and common purpose, and inspire us to be the best people and country we can be. It is time to be one America again.

 

Here is Miller Williams reading “Of History and Hope”:

 

 

♥️ And here are links to the other inaugural poems:

“The Gift Outright” by Robert Frost (1961) – John F. Kennedy

“On the Pulse of Morning” by Maya Angelou (1993) – Bill Clinton

“Praise Song for the Day” by Elizabeth Alexander (2009)  – Barack Obama

“One Today” by Richard Blanco (2013) –  Barack Obama

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♥️ FRIENDLY REMINDER: Check out my review of JOEY: The Story of Joe Biden by Jill Biden (with Kathleen Krull) and Amy June Bates. Leave a comment at that post for a chance to win a free copy (thank you, Kathleen!). 🙂

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The lovely and talented Janice Scully is hosting the Roundup at Salt City Verse. Skip on over to check out the full menu of poetic goodness being shared around the blogosphere this week. As always, stay safe, be well, wear your mask and VOTE! Happy Poetry Friday and have a good weekend!

 

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Copyright © 2020 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

28 thoughts on “the rare gift of inaugural poems

  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Jama. I don’t recall this poem either. But, it speaks to us today so clearly. I am also sad at what our children will face in making this nation work for all again. But, the young people I meet seem up to the task. They have opinions…they just need to get out there to do the work. I look forward to a new poet as well.
    Now, tell me about the fly…is that one of those things that looks real but is actually cake?

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    1. Fly is happy you asked about him. He’s been living with us for over a decade (he’s made of rubber). He was thrilled to see one of his relatives at the Vice Presidential debate, claims RBG sent his cousin to perch on Pence’s head. Though “fly” rhymes with “lie,” our FLY always tells the truth. 🙂

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  2. Thanks Jama for this powerful post, poem, art, and your deep felt commentary on the fraying of our country, and how we need to come together again. How timely Miller William’s poem is. I look forward to a new inaugural poem too, and appreciate the links to the previous ones.

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  3. Beautiful and inspiring post, Jama, and you’ve done what I never thought to do, find the poetry from other presidents. How can it be that only Democrats choose to have an inaugural poem? I remember talking about the beauty of JFK choosing Frost to be there. And this poem you’ve shared, the emphasis on children, yes, our hope! Kadir Nelson’s work also is fabulous to view. He is amazing! I too love that part of the poem you featured at the end, “cannot let chaos make its way to the heart.” Thank you, and crossing fingers, toes, all I can do!

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  4. Thanks for this! I read all of these with my students before the second Obama inauguration. So fun! Ruth, thereisnosuchthingasagodforsakentown.blogspot.com

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  5. Jama, thank you for the political activist stance in this blogpost. I loved this line when I read it and reveled in it when read out loud as part of an inaugural address: “cannot let chaos make its way to the heart.” The last line, If we can truly remember, they will not forget,” is filled with hope. Let us remember so our children’s children can build a better tomorrow. I did see that fly on Pence’s head so leave it to you to end your post with a treat!

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  6. Thank you for this heartfelt post, Jama. The late 90s are a blur in my memory (I chalk that up to having had two busy teenagers at the time), so I don’t remember this poem either. I’m so glad you shared it with us. I love the final line: “If we can truly remember, they will not forget.” The town halls this week were a stark reminder of what we have forgotten and what is possible when we do remember.

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  7. Thanks for the reminder of Williams poem – so resonant now. And to echo you, and Irene, “Hope, possibility, and change are always on the horizon.” – yes, yes, and yes! Love that Fly Guy’s cousin did RBG’s bidding! VP Pence-ive never looked (so) good. 😉

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  8. Everything about this post. The poem (nope, I don’t remember it either), the affirmation of the arts and of education, and…THAT FLY! Made me snort my tea!! I have a giant rubber cockroach and spider, plus a plush preying mantis, but methinks I need to add a fly to my menagerie!

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  9. “Who were many people coming together
    cannot become one people falling apart.”
    I teared up a bit reading that line. This country is breaking my heart. I feel like with this election our country is deciding who it wants to be going forward. I pray for new leadership that will help to heal us and bring us together. No matter the outcome of the election, we have such a long way to go.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s very encouraging to see so many voting early this time, but no one should have to wait in line for hours and hours! Thank goodness for absentee/mail in ballots (we hand delivered ours).

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  10. Miranda was so bummed to have missed the opportunity to vote in this election by just a few weeks. (Her 18th birthday is in January.) I recently prepared a care package for her at school and included my “I voted” sticker. She and her generation were the ones in my heart when I dropped my ballot off at the supervisor of elections.

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    1. I can understand Miranda’s dismay and disappointment — this is definitely the most important election in our country’s history. So much at stake. But it’s gratifying to hear she’s so engaged and committed — young people give me hope for the future.

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