Poetic Inauguration Countdown: Five Weeks

Inauguration of President Kennedy on the East Portico of the U.S. Capitol. (Architect of the Capitol)

The states have certified their results and the Electoral College representatives have voted, and so it appears that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will be inaugurated as President and Vice President of the United States five weeks from now. As it turns out, there have only been five poems that have been part of the official inauguration ceremonies in our 200+ years of doing this. So the literature teacher in me wanted to share these poems as a countdown to the start of the term of our new leaders. They all have wonderful, uniting messages about the best of America, or what America could be, that I would love for us to bring into the start of a new presidential term.

Looking into this, I was shocked to find out that there had never been poetry as part of the inauguration ceremony until John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961. If you are familiar with John, Robert, and Ted Kennedy’s speeches, you will see they frequently incorporate poetry into their political rhetoric, so perhaps that was an important theme in their upbringing. Of course, John Kennedy’s position was bringing new aspects to the US government, and was also, along with his wife, Jacqueline, a great supporter of the arts, so perhaps it is not a surprise that if this was not a tradition, Kennedy was the first to instigate it.

It is also not a surprise that Kennedy asked the poetic bard of New England, Robert Frost, to deliver the inaugural poem. In the actual event, the combination of sunlight and the reflection off the snow forced the 86-year-old poet to recite one of his older poems from memory because he couldn’t read the new poem he had written for the incoming president. However, thanks to The Boston Globe, I’m sharing the text of the poem Frost had written for this new, young president–a poem entitled “Dedication.”


Summoning artists to participate
In the august occasions of the state
Seems something artists ought to celebrate.
Today is for my cause a day of days.
And his be poetry’s old-fashioned praise
Who was the first to think of such a thing.
This verse that in acknowledgement I bring
Goes back to the beginning of the end
Of what had been for centuries the trend;
A turning point in modern history.
Colonial had been the thing to be
As long as the great issue was to see
What country’d be the one to dominate
By character, by tongue, by native trait,
The new world Christopher Columbus found.
The French, the Spanish, and the Dutch were downed
And counted out. Heroic deeds were done.
Elizabeth the First and England won.
Now came on a new order of the ages
That in the Latin of our founding sages
(Is it not written on the dollar bill
We carry in our purse and pocket still?)
God nodded his approval of as good.
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.
And this is no aristocratic joke
At the expense of negligible folk.
We see how seriously the races swarm
In their attempts at sovereignty and form.
They are our wards we think to some extent
For the time being and with their consent,
To teach them how Democracy is meant.
“New order of the ages” did they say?
If it looks none too orderly today,
‘Tis a confusion it was ours to start
So in it have to take courageous part.
No one of honest feeling would approve
A ruler who pretended not to love
A turbulence he had the better of.
Everyone knows the glory of the twain
Who gave America the aeroplane
To ride the whirlwind and the hurricane.
Some poor fool has been saying in his heart
Glory is out of date in life and art.
Our venture in revolution and outlawry
Has justified itself in freedom’s story
Right down to now in glory upon glory.
Come fresh from an election like the last,
The greatest vote a people ever cast,
So close yet sure to be abided by,
It is no miracle our mood is high.
Courage is in the air in bracing whiffs
Better than all the stalemate an’s and ifs.
There was the book of profile tales declaring
For the emboldened politicians daring
To break with followers when in the wrong,
A healthy independence of the throng,
A democratic form of right devine
To rule first answerable to high design.
There is a call to life a little sterner,
And braver for the earner, learner, yearner.
Less criticism of the field and court
And more preoccupation with the sport.
It makes the prophet in us all presage
The glory of a next Augustan age
Of a power leading from its strength and pride,
Of young amibition eager to be tried,
Firm in our free beliefs without dismay,
In any game the nations want to play.
A golden age of poetry and power
Of which this noonday’s the beginning hour.

I wouldn’t say this was Frost’s greatest work. Still, I like his summation of the past and his optimism about the future. Obviously, Joe Biden isn’t the exemplar of “young ambition” that John Kennedy was. But I hope that we can get over our division to embrace the energy of new possibility for the next administration that Frost captures in his poem.

3 thoughts on “Poetic Inauguration Countdown: Five Weeks

  1. Yes, odd isn’t it that Kennedy was the first, though I suppose we could call Lincoln’s Second Inaugural a great American prose poem.

    I’ve just been looking at the choice for a poet to read at Biden’s Inauguration. Young as she is, Gorman seems to have grasp onto the ideal of public poetry and how it might still be vital expression.

    Liked by 1 person

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