The first Inauguration I remember watching was in 1961. I remember watching, on our black and white TV, the old poet, Robert Frost, blinded by the sunlight, giving up reading his prepared poem and reciting instead this:
The Gift OutrightThe land was ours before we were the land's.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England's, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.
- Robert Frost
Here is what he had intended to read:
Summoning artists to participateIn the august occasions of the stateSeems something artists ought to celebrate.Today is for my cause a day of days.And his be poetry’s old-fashioned praiseWho was the first to think of such a thing.This verse that in acknowledgement I bringGoes back to the beginning of the endOf what had been for centuries the trend;A turning point in modern history.Colonial had been the thing to beAs long as the great issue was to seeWhat country’d be the one to dominateBy character, by tongue, by native trait,The new world Christopher Columbus found.The French, the Spanish, and the Dutch were downedAnd counted out. Heroic deeds were done.Elizabeth the First and England won.Now came on a new order of the agesThat in the Latin of our founding sages(Is it not written on the dollar billWe 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 MadisonSo much they saw as consecrated seersThey must have seen ahead what not appears,They would bring empires down about our earsAnd by the example of our DeclarationMake everybody want to be a nation.And this is no aristocratic jokeAt the expense of negligible folk.We see how seriously the races swarmIn their attempts at sovereignty and form.They are our wards we think to some extentFor 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 startSo in it have to take courageous part.No one of honest feeling would approveA ruler who pretended not to loveA turbulence he had the better of.Everyone knows the glory of the twainWho gave America the aeroplaneTo ride the whirlwind and the hurricane.Some poor fool has been saying in his heartGlory is out of date in life and art.Our venture in revolution and outlawryHas justified itself in freedom’s storyRight 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 whiffsBetter than all the stalemate an’s and ifs.There was the book of profile tales declaringFor the emboldened politicians daringTo break with followers when in the wrong,A healthy independence of the throng,A democratic form of right devineTo 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 courtAnd more preoccupation with the sport.It makes the prophet in us all presageThe glory of a next Augustan ageOf 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 powerOf which this noonday’s the beginning hour.
And here is the poem for today - One Today - written and read by Richard Blanco for the Fifty-seventh Presidential Inauguration in American History. His language is efficient, evocative, electric. One today. One sun. One light. One ground. One wind. One sky. One moon. One Country.
One TodayOne 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.
One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story
told by our silent gestures moving behind windows.
My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors,
each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper—
bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives—
to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem.
All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
the “I have a dream” we keep dreaming,
or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light
breathing color into stained glass windows,
life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth
onto the steps of our museums and park benches
as mothers watch children slide into the day.
One ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk
of corn, every head of wheat sown by sweat
and hands, hands gleaning coal or planting windmills
in deserts and hilltops that keep us warm, hands
digging trenches, routing pipes and cables, hands
as worn as my father’s cutting sugarcane
so my brother and I could have books and shoes.
The dust of farms and deserts, cities and plains
mingled by one wind—our breath. Breathe. Hear it
through the day’s gorgeous din of honking cabs,
buses launching down avenues, the symphony
of footsteps, guitars, and screeching subways,
the unexpected song bird on your clothes line.
Hear: squeaky playground swings, trains whistling,
or whispers across café tables, Hear: the doors we open
for each other all day, saying: hello, shalom,
buon giorno, howdy, namaste, or buenos días
in the language my mother taught me—in every language
spoken into one wind carrying our lives
without prejudice, as these words break from my lips.
One sky: since the Appalachians and Sierras claimed
their majesty, and the Mississippi and Colorado worked
their way to the sea. Thank the work of our hands:
weaving steel into bridges, finishing one more report
for the boss on time, stitching another wound
or uniform, the first brush stroke on a portrait,
or the last floor on the Freedom Tower
jutting into a sky that yields to our resilience.
One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes
tired from work: some days guessing at the weather
of our lives, some days giving thanks for a love
that loves you back, sometimes praising a mother
who knew how to give, or forgiving a father
who couldn’t give what you wanted.
We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always—home,
always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country—all of us—
facing the stars
hope—a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,waiting for us to name it—together.