While I know this is not shared by all Americans, for me one of the gifts of 2020 was the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, who better represent the leadership I would like to see in this country. Even if you disagree, I hope you can celebrate the country’s long tradition of peaceful transition of power, whether “our” candidate won or not. I started the Inaugural Poem Countdown before I came up with the 12-ish days idea, so it seems appropriate to continue to share the poems that have been featured in previous inaugurations.
The third Inaugural Poem was in 1997 for Bill Clinton’s second inauguration. This time he chose a poet who resembled him: Miller Williams, a man of modest background who was born, raised, lived, and worked in Arkansas. Perhaps the title of this poem is a shout-out to Clinton’s small Arkansas birthplace of Hope.
Of History and Hope
1997 inaugural poem 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.
Williams covers many of the same themes as Maya Angelou did in Clinton’s first Inaugural Poem (read my post about that here). To me, Williams is also looking forward and backwards, although with more of a fix on the future than the past. His is, less dramatic, more focused on smaller, everyday things. Perhaps he channels his original profession. While he originally wanted to study English, but was dissuaded from that by some educator or educators who proclaimed his test scores showed his had no aptitude in that area and thus guided him toward the sciences. Therefore, he spent many years teaching biology by day and writing poetry by night until his publishing success allowed him to switch to teaching English. Obviously, he loved poetry, but couldn’t abandon his work with “the children” (although he taught in universities).
As a teacher myself, of course I love that. I also love the theme of equality and unity that he pursues in a very different way, but also very beautifully, as Maya Angelou did.
I haven’t heard if Joe Biden will include a poem in his inaugural services. Except…his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, IS an English professor. And Joe Biden claims to love literature. AND during his campaign, he quoted from a poem by Irish poet Seamus Heaney, “The Cure at Troy”:
If you didn’t watch, some of the most famous words from this poem are:
History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
So, coincidence? Maybe, maybe not. But it wouldn’t surprise me if Biden had a more “common-man” poet like Miller Williams for his inauguration (Maya Angelou is many things, but few would label her “common”).
Any guesses? Will Joe Biden have an Inaugural Poem? If so, who do you think it will be?