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A Tale of Two Poets: Literary Lessons from Inaugurations

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

From the first female Vice President to Lady Gaga’s rendition of the National Anthem to Bernie Sanders’s meme-worthy mittens, Joseph R. Biden, Jr.’s inauguration was memorable for many reasons.

For writers, however, the event carried particular significance. One of our own, National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman, was front and center for the recitation of her commemorative poem, “The Hill We Climb.”

I mean no disrespect to the President, but in my opinion, Gorman stole the show.

Actually, I think he’d probably agree with me.

Wearing a brilliant yellow coat with a bright red headband, Gorman recited her poem with honesty and emotion, punctuating meaningful words and phrases with carefully placed gestures. Yet, at no point did I feel that it was too polished or neat. She clearly demonstrated her sincerity as a speaker and writer with great respect for the solemnity of the occasion.

This is a hard thing to do when sharing your work with others, particularly when reciting something from memory that you’ve rehearsed. There is a fine line between being truly “yourself” in a performance of your own work and being over prepared to the point where you can’t create a fluid experience for an audience. Gorman is clearly a master of balancing the two. She is not only an accomplished writer, but an expert at stepping into her role as a presenter.

Gorman's inspiring story goes beyond her wizardry as a poet. As a child, she struggled with auditory processing disorder, which resulted in a speech impediment. Instead of being held back by this condition, though, Gorman saw it as “a gift” that has helped her to advance as a writer by challenging her to share her work more frequently.

To combat her speech impediment, she practiced reading and reciting her poetry out loud. Eventually, she felt comfortable enough to present her work for audiences, which led her to overcome her difficulty speaking. This fact makes the emotional impact of her contribution to the inauguration that much more inspiring. It takes incredible strength to see a weakness or obstacle as an asset to be used rather than a roadblock.

Gorman also inspired me to do some research into the history of commemorative inauguration poems. One thing that surprised me is that there are significantly less poems than I imagined—only six total. Along with Gorman’s poem, two poems were written for both Barack Obama and Bill Clinton’s inaugurations. But it’s the sixth and earliest one, Robert Frost’s tribute to John F. Kennedy, that fascinates me most.

Frost was 86 years old when he was called upon to participate in the 1961 inauguration. Kennedy, a great admirer of his work, requested that he read his favorite poem, “The Gift Outright.” However, Frost instead chose to craft a poem specifically with the occasion in mind, titled simply “Dedication.”

Frost showed up at the ceremony with a written copy of the lengthy poem in hand. However, the glare of the sun, especially against the large amount of snow that fell overnight, made it difficult for him to see the words on the paper. After provoking good natured laughter from the crowd at his efforts, Frost instead announced that what he’d read was a mere prelude to his actual presentation. He then began to recite “The Gift Outright,” which he had committed to memory.

Watching the video of the reading, it's moving to watch one of America's greatest poets react to a difficult situation with such grace, ultimately forgoing his own efforts for the president’s request. In the grainy footage, you can see Kennedy give a slight smile as Frost begins the initial lines of the poem he'd requested.

It’s even more fascinating to watch Gorman and Frost's readings back to back—a young artist bursting onto the scene as a new voice for her generation and an elder statesman nearing the end of his life.

But what both have in common is that they made their offerings of art with true humility and a clear understanding of what our country needed to hear at each point in time.

Faced with obstacles from nature that his aging eyes couldn’t contend with, Frost deferred to Kennedy’s request to hear his favorite poem, responding with humor to his awkward attempts to read from a sun-glared paper.

Meanwhile, exactly 60 years later, Gorman stood in the same spot, perfected by her trials as a young girl, and made an offering of her own filled with peace and hope for unity and better days.

Both of these poetry readings are a master class in demonstrating humility through art and respect for our audiences.

In a previous post around the holiday season, I wrote about how our writing is a gift to others that must be curated for the people we most want to impact. Gorman and Frost understand this concept well. Neither of them enter into their readings with the desire to uplift or glorify their own abilities.

Their only focus is their audience and how they can use words to lead people into a place of contemplation during one of the most important and solemn ceremonies our nation conducts. While watching both presentations, I couldn’t help but think of the words of the Apostle Paul. In Ephesians 5:21, he instructs the members of the church at Ephesus to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

When we set aside our own preconceived notions of what our writing “should” look like and instead ask ourselves what we can give to readers that they can’t get anywhere else, we are being Christlike. We submit to the readers we serve with our art. We bestow love and honor on the people who have come to listen.

These are not exclusively Christian attributes. They are things all artists need to pursue. When we do, our writing becomes more than just something we love to do. It becomes something we love to give. All those Bernie Sanders memes set aside, Amanda Gorman overtook my Facebook feed last week. People shared her story, the text of the poem, the video of her presentation, and colorful graphics featuring quotes from it.

For me as a writer, it’s extremely gratifying to see the entire country buzzing about poetry. Perhaps Gorman will even inspire a whole new generation of poets to pursue the craft, just as Inkling author Logan Roberts was inspired to create his chapbook as I shared in last week’s post.

But even more than that, I hope that her message will deeply impact our society in the unique way that only language can. History is replete with literary works that changed the way we saw the world—Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, and Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, just to name a few.

It is my hope that as people contemplate Gorman’s writing, they will think more deeply about the issues at the heart of her poems and be moved to work toward the humility and unity America so desperately needs.

And if more people start reading and writing poetry as a result, we'll be all the better for it. Want to find out more about how to write for a specific audience? My Ideal Reader Avatar, found in The Ultimate Writing Project Workbook on my website, presents a strategy for identifying exactly who you are writing for so you can revise your work to best impact the people you are creating for.

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