Over the course of American history, a tradition of inaugural poets writing poems to be read at presidential inaugurations has been born.
While there have only been a few presidents who have chosen to have a poet read that their inauguration, the poet’s names are sure to be highly recognizable. They include the reading at President Joe Biden’s inauguration, and pieces read by Maya Angelou and Robert Frost at historical inaugurations. It is also worthy of note the fact that all four of the presidents on this list are Democrats.
US Presidential Inaugural Poems
- 1 Joe Biden (2021): The Hill We Climb by Amanda Gorman
- 2 Barack Obama (2013): One Today by Richard Blanco
- 3 Barack Obama (2009): Praise Song for the Day by Elizabeth Alexander
- 4 Bill Clinton (1997): Of History and Hope by Miller Williams
- 5 Bill Clinton (1993): On the Pulse of the Morning by Maya Angelou
- 6 John F. Kennedy (1961): The Gift Outright by Robert Frost
Joe Biden (2021): The Hill We Climb by Amanda Gorman
‘The Hill We Climb’ was written by Amanda Gorman for Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20th, 2021. The poem was received with rave reviews from those who viewed the ceremony and were moved by her delivery and the content of her piece. Her poem describes America at that moment: suffering under the economic and health burden of COVID-19, dealing with the recent insurrection at the US Capitol, and trying to come to terms with its own history of racial discrimination through protests and activist movements.
Gorman also speaks about America’s future in the poem, one that she sees as being filled with light. The most memorable lines come at the end of the poem when the poet suggests to all those listening that their actions have an influence on the world. The “new dawn blooms as we free it,” she says. There is “always light / if only we’re brave enough to see it / If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
Here are a few lines from the beginning of the poem in which Gorman refers to herself reading ‘The Hill We Climb’ :
Where a skinny Black girl
descended from slaves and raised by a single mother
can dream of becoming president
only to find herself reciting for one
Read more of Amanda Gorman’s poetry.
Barack Obama (2013): One Today by Richard Blanco
‘One Today’ was written by Richard Blanco for the inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2013. The poem was read at the ceremony on January 21st. He was the first openly gay and first Latino inaugural poet. The poem is a celebration of the shared American experience. He spends time making sure to emphasize that it is America’s diversity that makes the American experience so powerful. The poem starts at sunrise and ends at sunset while traveling through different geographic regions of the country. He starts with the Smokey Mountains, the Great Lakes, and the Great Plains and ends by talking about the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi and Colorado Rivers.
Here are the first lines of the poem:
One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,
peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces
of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth
across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies.
Barack Obama (2009): Praise Song for the Day by Elizabeth Alexander
Elizabeth Alexander wrote ‘Praise Song for the Day’ in honor of President Barack Obama’s inauguration. The poem is written in tercets, or sets of three lines. Like most inaugural poems, this one is meant to appeal to a wide audience. It uses simple language and clear images that take the reader to different parts of the country and to various experiences. She speaks about “A woman and her son wait[ing] for the bus” and a teacher directing her class. The image of a road appears partway through the poem, used to symbolize the future which stretches out in front of America. “Light,” just like in ‘The Hill We Climb,’ is used as a major symbol. Here are a few lines from the poem:
Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,
picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.
Bill Clinton (1997): Of History and Hope by Miller Williams
Miller Williams wrote ‘Of History and Hope’ for the 1997 inauguration of President Bill Clinton. He spends the poem speaking about emotions and the way that people across the country feel at these times of great change. His words are personal but do not stray into the sentimental or overwrought. When speaking about the opportunity to read poetry at Clinton’s inauguration, he said that he hoped “it may do something to elevate poetry in the public mind.”
He spends much of the poem crafting images that define America. These include sounds, tastes, and experiences. The poet also brings in a familiar sentiment found in other inaugural poems: that America isn’t finished yet but that it’s on its way to a place of greatness. Here are a few lines from the end of the poem:
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.
Bill Clinton (1993): On the Pulse of the Morning by Maya Angelou
One of the most famous of the few inaugural poets, Maya Angelou, read her poem ‘On the Pulse of the Morning’ at Bill Clinton’s first inauguration in 1993. The recording of the poem later won the 1993 Grammy Award in the “Best Spoken Word” category. This brought her poetry and her broader career to the widest audience she’d yet experienced. The poem speaks on themes of change, inclusion, and the role of the President and the citizens of the country to create a nation that helps those in need. The poem has been compared to Frost’s inaugural poem and is often cited as setting the tone for all inaugural poems to come.
Angelou’s performance of the poem was another reason she garnered praise. She was described as using the skills she learned as an actor and speaker to convey the poem’s meaning. Here are a few lines:
A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
Marked the mastodon,
The dinosaur, who left dried tokens
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.
Read more of Maya Angelou’s poetry.
John F. Kennedy (1961): The Gift Outright by Robert Frost
‘The Gift Outright’ was read by Robert Frost at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy. This poem was the first inaugural poem ever read but famously was not the poem that Frost wrote for the occasion. When Frost was first approached to do the reading and to compose a new poem for the occasion, he said no. The president-elect then requested that Frost recite ‘The Gift Outright’ at the ceremony. This piece was written in 1942 and taps into many of the themes one would want to hear at an inauguration.
Despite his refusal, Frost decided that he would write a poem for the occasion and composed ’Dedication.’ It was decided that he’d read ‘Dedication’ as a preamble to ‘The Gift Outright.’ But, reportedly, when he approached the lectern the glare of the recently fallen snow was too bright for him to see the pages. Rather than try to read a poem he hadn’t memorized, he chose to recite ‘The Gift Outright.’ Despite things not going perfectly on this occasion (not to mention Frost thanking “president-elect, Mr. John Finley), the reading was regarded as a success for the poet and marked a new high point in his career. Here are a few lines:
The land was ours before we were the land’s.She was our land more than a hundred yearsBefore we were her people. She was oursIn Massachusetts, in Virginia,But we were England’s, still colonials,Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,