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A Poet at the Inauguration

01/23/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

John F. Kennedy inaugurated the custom of inviting a poet to read at presidential inaugurations. "When power leads man to arrogance," Kennedy, the only presidential recipient of a Pulitzer Prize, said, "poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the area of man's concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses."

The cleanser for the January 20, 1961 inauguration ceremony turned out to be "The Gift Outright," which its author, Robert Frost, recited from memory. Frost had in fact written another poem, "Dedication," expressly for the occasion, but, blinded by glare from freshly fallen snow, the 86-year-old poet was unable to read his typed copy, and he went instead with an old standby. The final lines of "Dedication" celebrate "A golden age of poetry and power/ Of which this noonday's the beginning hour."

A poet may or may not have had a seat at the round table in the original Camelot, but it is only in retrospect, and the memoirs of his advisors, that the Kennedy years may seem a golden age of poetry and power. Though poetry exerts its own power, those who wield worldly power rarely display much patience for poetry. It is true that Léopold Sedar Senghor, a major figure in modern French poetry, served as president of Senegal for twenty years. But more common was the reaction of Lyndon Johnson, who, pilloried by them for prosecuting the war in Vietnam, exclaimed: "I don't want anything to do with poets." For George H. W. Bush, a poem was as appetizing as a stalk of broccoli. "I don't DO poetry," he insisted.

However, James Dickey was invited to read a poem at the gala held in the Kennedy Center immediately following Jimmy Carter's inauguration in 1977. And Bill Clinton's two official inauguration ceremonies featured poets -- Maya Angelou in 1993 and Miller Williams in 1997. Barack Obama, who owes his election to the presidency to his majestic command of the English language, is repaying that debt in part by commissioning Elizabeth Alexander, a poet who teaches at Yale University, to read a new piece at his inauguration on January 20.

Has poetry -- like the environment, health care, disarmament, and civil liberties - become a Democratic monopoly? The first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, was an avid reader of poetry; Fred Kaplan's recent book Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer (Harper) examines how the 16th president was profoundly shaped by his intimacy with the works of Robert Burns, Lord Byron, and William Shakespeare. His only rival as the most literary of presidents might be Theodore Roosevelt, who, a strenuous reader and writer, published more than 30 books. But for their GOP successors, imaginative literature has been a closed book. Justification for the war in Iraq was George W. Bush's signal achievement in creative writing.

Plato notoriously banished poets from his ideal Republic, but presidential neglect of, even disdain for, poetry in the United States has been harmful not only to the Republican Party but the entire republic for which it stands, when elected to office. Whether it scans or not, poetry is MRI of the soul, and ignoring it encourages malignancy. If, as Percy Bysshe Shelley contended, "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world," acknowledging them might yield better legislation. According to George Oppen, "Poets are the legislators of the unacknowledged world," and ignorance of the law is neither a valid defense nor a healthy way to live.

According to James Dickey, "A poet is someone who stands outside in the rain hoping to be struck by lightning." Even if the skies are clear on January 20, producing a poem appropriate to the august occasion of a presidential inauguration is a formidable task. One could imagine the poet desperately, repeatedly invoking the Muse, as if trying to jump-start a jalopy whose battery is extinct. Writing is the avocation of introverts, people who linger in pajamas to tinker with syllables. "I'm Nobody," wrote Emily Dickinson, who never stood before a rostrum on Capitol Hill. "All the writer can strive for is a personal voice," writes Ha Jin, the contemporary poet and novelist. "Whatever role he plays, he must keep in mind that his success or failure as a writer will be determined only on the page. That is the space where he should strive to exist."

And yet Walt Whitman might have summoned a voice that could speak truth to and with power. While singing of himself, he sang for all of us. We cannot expect more of a poet, or a president.