April 12, 2021

Primary Source Learning: Inaugural Poems & Poets

Poetry has a long history of addressing and illuminating public issues and events but a disjointed and relatively short history of inclusion in presidential inauguration ceremonies. These moments, however, provide additional nuance to the state of the country during these important transitional moments in our nation. Use the links below to read and listen to the inaugural poems; to analyze, compare and contrast the insightful and verses; and to learn more about the poets who penned and performed them.

Inauguration of John F. Kennedy 1961

Dedication” written by Robert Frost for Kennedy’s inauguration

Robert Frost reciting “The Gift Outright” | poem text

Inauguration of Bill Clinton 1993

Maya Angelou reciting “On the Pulse of Morning” | poem text

Inauguration of Bill Clinton 1997

Miller Williams reciting “Of History and Hope” | poem text

Inauguration of Barack Obama 2009

Elizabeth Alexander reciting “Praise Song for the Day” | poem text

Inauguration of Barack Obama 2013

Richard Blanco reciting “One Today” | text | annotated text

Inauguration of Joe Biden 2021

Amanda Gorman performing “The Hill We Climb” | poem text

Ideas for Learning

Guided Primary Source Analysis: Dedication by Robert Frost

Comparing & Contrasting “Dedication” & “The Gift Outright”

Inaugural Poetry – Robert Frost and Maya Angelou: ideas for comparing/contrasting the poem Frost wrote for Kennedy’s inauguration and then one he read along with Maya Angelou’s inaugural poem; extend the lesson further by bringing one or more additional inaugural poems into the mix

  • Compare/contrast the delivery of the inaugural poems.
  • How did listening to these poems affect you? Describe your thoughts and feelings as you listened to the poems.
  • In what ways did the delivery of the poems evolve over time?

Teaching with Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb”

Compare/contrast the calls to action of two or more inaugural poems.

  • How were they similar and/or different?
  • In what ways did you find them inspiring or not?
  • Write your own brief poem that provides a call to action to our country today.

Choose one inauguration. Read the texts of both the president’s speech (see below) and the poem, then make word clouds of the text of each. Compare/contrast the word choice, tone and messages of the pair.

  • What words stand out in each?
  • What similarities and differences do you notice?
  • Summarize the overall message, or certain key messages, of each text and describe how they mirror or support one another.
  • Analyze the call to action in each text. In what ways do those calls to action reverberate today?

Choose one inauguration. Read the texts of both the president’s speech and the inaugural poem and reflect on what they say about the issues and concerns of the day. Then discuss what lessons from them you can apply to our nation today.

While President Abraham Lincoln did not have a poet speak at either of his inaugurations, an inaugural poem was included in the 1865 Inauguration Programme. Read the poem and then read Lincoln’s inaugural speech.

  • What words stand out in each?
  • What similarities and differences do you notice?
  • Summarize the overall message, or certain key messages, of each text and describe how they mirror or support one another.
  • Read the blog post, Inauguration Stories: Lincoln’s 1865 “With Malice Toward None” Speech. In what ways does learning more about the historical context of the day affect your understanding of both the speech and the poem?
  • In Joe Biden’s inaugural address, he stated that the country “must end this uncivil war”. What parallels can you draw between 1865 and 2021? What lessons from the past would you suggest we apply to today? Write a short poem or song or create a work of art that incorporates your responses to the previous questions.

Related Presidential Inaugural Addresses

John. F. Kennedy, 1961 | speech text | inauguration day primary sources

Bill Clinton 1993 | speech text | inauguration day primary sources

Bill Clinton 1997 | speech text | inauguration day primary sources

Barack Obama 2009 | speech text | inauguration day primary sources

Barack Obama 2013 | speech text | inauguration day primary sources

Joe Biden 2021 | speech text

Related Articles 

What we can learn from the language of President Biden’s inauguration Poynter

The Poetry of Robert Frost American Treasure curator note

Robert Frost Reads Poem at JFK’s Inauguration America’s Library

Amanda Gorman Selected as President-Elect Joe Biden’s Inaugural Poet From the Catbird Seat blog

Congratulations to Amanda Gorman! Library of Congress Blog

“For there is always light”: Amanda Gorman’s Inaugural Poem “The Hill We Climb” Delivers Message of Unity From the Catbird Seat blog

Amanda Gorman, Inaugural National Youth Poet Laureate From the Catbird Seat blog

Related Resources

Today in History: John F. Kennedy

Primary Source Spotlight: Robert Frost

Presidential Spotlight: Bill Clinton

Maya Angelou resources

Miller Williams resources

Elizabeth Alexander resources

Richard Blanco resources

Joe Biden resources

Amanda Gorman resources

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