The Inaugural Poetry Test

by Annie Finch

blanco reading

People turn to poetry at moments of personal and communal importance: tragedies such as 9-11, weddings, the dedications of monuments—and, yes, presidential inaugurations.

In recent years, our shared national confidence in the power of poetry to move us in public situations has been flagging. Richard Blanco gave a vibrant delivery of his inaugural poem, developing a moving image of the sunrise unfolding over various parts of the continent and U.S. citizens until it led back to the image of his own parents.  But it seems that, for many of those who have talked to me about the poem over the past week, something was missing.

Is their disappointment justified?  A public poem is no easy thing to produce.  The poet is being asked to perform verbal alchemy on the importance of the occasion, to craft words in a way differently from all the surrounding prayers and speeches.  Poetry is what’s called for—poetry that is palpably different from the language of every day.

This is what some Twitter users were responding to when they complained that Blanco’s poem didn’t use rhyme, what Washington Post columnist Alexandra Petri meant when she used Blanco’s poem as an occasion to declare that poetry has become a “limp and fangless thing.”

A poet rising to a public occasion has a double test to pass: to gain the audience’s trust that the mantle of “poet” is deserved, and to use that trust to convey something worthwhile.  In the service of the first goal, and perhaps the second as well, an inaugural poet does well to conjure the art’s distinctive magic, writing in the way that only poets can: with rhythms and beats, rhymes, refrains, and meters (not only iambic!), and the other diverse constraints of poetic rhetoric.

Using form may not be the only way to craft effective public poems. But, especially when listening as opposed to reading is key, it provides the most likely way to hammer out lines strong and memorable and unique enough that they will linger in a listener’s body, and from there have a chance to seep their way into the soul.

Petri is wrong when she writes, “There is no longer, really, any formal innovation possible. The constraints of meter have long been abandoned.” Because there are so few examples of skilled and original formal poetry in the public eye, we as a culture have nearly forgotten that effective formal poetry is possible.

But, in fact, we are now in the midst of a Renaissance of enthusiasm for poetic constraint. All around us, forward-thinking, adventurous new poets—such as the many young contributors to this anthology, the developers of this new form, and these awesome Stonecoast students—are making brave new forays into poetic form.

In the comments section, I’d love to see your examples of poems, in form or free verse, that you think pass the inaugural poetry test and succeed as public poems.

Annie Finch’s most recent books are Spells: New and Selected Poems (Wesleyan University Press) and A Poet’s Craft: A Comprehensive Guide to Making and Shaping Your Poems (University of Michigan Press). She is Director of the Stonecoast MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Southern Maine and can be found on Facebook and Twitter.

image courtesy of google images


18 thoughts on “The Inaugural Poetry Test

  1. Pingback: Poetic Alchemy – A Matter of Time and Possibly Thyme | Two Voices, One Song

  2. Fall of Babylon

    I can remember where
    we were, but only
    because the picture
    tells me so.

    Not the exact moment—
    but memory serves me,
    over easy
    cold breakfast conversations.
    Playing games
    on the back of a cereal box,
    waiting for you
    every day,
    offering up mere Fruity Os
    however well
    you can see through them,
    the bag,
    and my veiled intentions.

    Dainty, child-like fingers
    small enough
    to ring me a winner.
    Choosing your suitor
    based on the flavor of the day.
    Struck with this, not
    once, but twice,
    breaking our engagement
    as you stand,
    cutting me open and
    spilling my remains along the ground.
    People pass us by, and
    will forever walk all over me,
    crushing me beneath their heels,
    to sugary powder—
    the kind that tastes so
    sickeningly sweet
    in the milk at the end of the bowl.

    Couldn’t always hang onto
    you, your gaze
    forever, could I?
    Forever unsure of the right words
    to use and
    where to place them,
    with the perfect caption
    next to the snapshot
    of our “lives.”
    These ideas expressed
    I’ve longed to write,
    these scribbling which will
    somehow find their way
    into a slushpile of works-in-progress,
    an anthology, perhaps.
    A future I always meant to
    write, until I was written off.

    WARNING: The following material may not be suitable for some viewers.

    The television shows
    flicker and flash,
    a continual burn and crash,
    of images immolated
    into the screens
    of our collective unconsciousness,
    Beyond our wildest
    imaginations, playing with us,
    over and over, again and again,
    we want to see—
    can’t help but look.

    People pressing in,
    unable to breathe,
    constricting movement
    to any other place
    than here.

    Up, up, up those steps
    longing for
    the answer at the top.
    Wouldn’t be climbing them
    without the promise
    of the stairway
    that leads to cleaner breathing air.

    So much for comfort,
    this empty space between the beds,
    hard and unyielding,
    like your heart,
    open for suggestion no longer.

    Even as towers fell,
    I was erecting my own.
    Wish I could say mine
    withstood terroristic tests of time.
    Pedestal’s placement,
    the mortar mixed,

    Nothing like
    tragedy to tear
    things apart.

    My mind was on this morning.

    • thank you, Jared! You have such honest and strong images of 9-11 here. I would love to see this moving material crafted into the lines of a poem that could carry it, like a boat, far beyond its own shores.

  3. Thanks for posting this. I was one of those who was underwhelmed by Blanco’s poem, not because the poem didn’t rhyme, but because the imagery seemed stock, and the message of collectivism seemed overly romantic and out-of-step. One poem that I think passes the test of a public poem, though I’m not sure if it would be suitable for an inauguration is Robert Pinsky’s poem, “The Anniversary” (variously titled “Anniversary” in some places), written on or around the one-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. To me, that poem has the rigor, both in language, image and idea that elevates it above the merely rhetorical into something that is more complicated and satisfying.

    • Nice suggestion, Steve. Pinsky is certainly one of those poets who has an abiding sense of a public mission and is willing to go pretty far to use the full repertoire of poetry’s tools to carry it out. “The Shirt,” about the Triangle Fire,” is another one that does a good job, I think.

  4. Yes! Thank you for this.

    The following might “pass” the test:


    And after Sandy Hook, this may not pass the inaugural part but these poems did help me personally and others I know, in a “public” way…I noted that they were spreading around facebook and twitter.

    The Fog Town School of Thought
    by Maurice Manning in Orion

    They should have taught us birds and trees
    in school, they should have taught us beauty
    and weaving bees and had a class
    on listening and standing alone —
    the children should have studied light
    reflected from a spider web,
    we should have learned the branches of streams
    spread out like fingers or the veins
    of a leaf—we should have learned the sky
    is the tallest steeple, we should have known
    a hill is a voice inside the sky —
    O, we should have had our school
    on top and stayed until the night
    for the fog to bloom in the hollows and rise
    like cotton spinning off a wheel —
    we should have learned a dream — a child’s
    and even still a man’s — is made
    from fog and love, my word, you’d think
    with the book in front of us we should
    have learned how Fog Town got its name.

    And also:


    and maybe:

    • Melanie, I love all these examples (and the Robinson Jeffers is a favorite of mine, included in A Poet’s Craft). Though none of them are conventionally metrical (accentual-syllabic), each of them makes unabashed use of language rhythms to build momentum, to bring the poem to a wordless place. Even reading them on the page, one feels the physical sense of being part of a powerful community, as if the rhythms in our bodies are uniting us as we listen.

  5. I wrote one 5 days before Obama’s first inauguration four years ago. I wrote it as more of a celebration of his personal achievement within the context of our national history. I now think it is rather silly but I tend to leave poems as I write them rather than mangle them with over-editing.

    New Birth Of Freedom
    2009 01 15

    Come gather together as one united tribe
    all you Angels of America with shining eyes
    to celebrate new birth of freedom and truth
    when Barack Hussein Obama from Hawaii
    swears oath as President of United States
    to defend Liberty of all who share our land.

    Rise up from factories and offices and fields
    and gather at clear pond of Washington Mall
    to celebrate new birth of freedom and truth
    and see your face reflected in his smiling face
    for he binds all families in one world clan
    as our brown brother of both black and white.

    Hold hands in strong ring of national pride
    and sing we have overcome and now triumph
    to celebrate new birth of freedom and truth
    electing as president good man who combines
    nations of Africa and Europe in one noble soul
    for we are all loving children of Adam and Eve.

    Dance together to piano tunes and drums
    chanting we are children of Mother Liberty
    to celebrate new birth of freedom and truth
    Viking and Zulu for one Commander in Chief
    whose steady hand steers our Ship of State
    to fulfill great promise of our American Dream.

    • Surazeus, thanks for sharing this! It has so many good things about it—and it certainly has a haunting, quite unique, and very innate, binding rhythm that gives it a head start in passing the public poetry test, in “getting under the readers’s skin” as Robert Frost put it. I love the alliteration of “Rise up from factories and offices and fields, and the imagery of “Hold hands in strong ring of national pride,” especially following directly on the image of the skin colors. I hope you will reconsider your policy and revise this one–work on it to bring the weaker parts up to the level of the best parts! The poem deserves it.

  6. I had my reservations too. Something was missing even more than the rhyme for me. But I hesitate to name it because I’m just not sure.

    Annie kindly read your email from me today and respond if you will.

  7. Thanks to all for these examples! I am also thinking of “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus, “Easter 1916” by Yeats, and “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by Langston Hughes–all poems that are completely memorable for their music and have succeeded in lodging in the public psyche exactly because of that. Which isn’t to say that their imagery, their meanings, their soul, their message isn’t speaking also–it’s to say that, as I understand the poet’s calling, our job is to allow the music of words to speak through us the imagery, meanings, soul, and message that words without music could never say.

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  10. I disagree with more than your obvious aversion to free verse. To hear you talk, most of the poetry of the last fifty years would have to be tossed out as “unmusical.” However, there are many memorable lines in this poem, repeated themes like “One Sun. . . One Sky. . . One Ground. . . ” which all hold together to the title of “One Today.” The title itself has multiple meanings, the idea that we are one today, or should be, and that we only have one today, not to mention the obvious reference to Ben Franklin’s old adage that “One today is worth two tomorrows.”

    I wish, to be fair, that you had printed Blanco’s poem in your article, or at least segments of it. There is plenty here for the ear. I am sorry, but relegating modern poetry to the rhyme and cadence of bygone days is not the answer. Reciting poetry in a manner which is not common to the modern ear, which sounds archaic, and out of step with our every day lives would have only made it sound hokey. Sadly people don’t warm to that unless it is in rap, or comedic verse. Yet somehow they expect the sing song sound of their school days. Why? Because that’s all they know of poetry anymore, perhaps? Because they don’t read poetry anymore. This is why I think his open free verse was a good choice, and frankly, the lists, and repetitions were not unlike Whitman’s “Song of America.”

    Another problem is that people keep trying to compare this to Robert Frost’s inaugural poem. The one he recited, “The Gift Outright,” though it is what Kennedy asked for, is not the poem that Frost wrote for the occasion. Instead of reading “Dedication,” he claimed that due to the glare of sun off the snow that he could not read the new manuscript, so instead recited “The Gift Outright” by heart, a poem nearly two decades old, published I think nine years before. Frost was already well known, and well loved. His poem was already published and famous, and he did not write it in a matter of just a few weeks. It is simply not fair to compare it to any other inaugural poet’s effort.

    The other poems that you mention as memorable public poems, likewise were not written on demand with only a short time available for the poet to compose. Certainly there were revisions and polishing touches. I cannot imagine Yates writing “Easter 1916,” and reciting it three weeks later. How can you possibly compare them to the colossal task put in front of an inaugural poet?

    Perhaps the greatest problem is that we Americans are jaded, and deeply partisan, deeply divided, and not ready for the concept of being one today. No amount of formal technique could have saved that. For me, Blanco’s poem was memorable and moving. My minister sent me a message that day saying that it had her in tears, and that she kept repeating, “One sun, one sky.” I think what he did was appropriate for the occasion, and that it worked well.

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  14. Dear David, I just saw your comment for the first time nearly two years after posting this piece. I didn’t want you to think I had ignored it, so I’m replying even though I am no longer associated with the Stonecoast program.

    I wanted to thank you for your beautiful description of the importance of the poem to you. I was especially moved by your account of the minister’s message.

    As for your thoughts on poetic structure, I guess I would point out that the parts that stayed in your minister’s ear, and the parts that you seem to remember as well, all involve the repetition of the word “One.” That rather seems to support the point that form is a key component of memorable public poetry, since repetition is the basis of poetic form.

    I agree with you that there are many ways for poetry to use repetition well, some much more flexible than others. And I enjoy good poems in free verse very much–there are many, many, many, many poems in free verse that I love dearly. But generally, I enjoy seeing them on the page, and when I am listening to poetry aloud I enjoy the more complex (and extremely various and diverse) repetitions of poetry in meter.

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