Why Yahoo! News commissioned inaugural poems for Barack Obama

Yahoo News

On Jan. 20, 1961, Robert Frost became America's first inaugural poet, lending literary polish to the swearing-in of John F. Kennedy with "The Gift Outright," a beautiful poem of barbed patriotism.

America didn't get another inaugural poet until 1993 when Maya Angelou read a much-discussed poem called "On the Pulse of Morning" for President Clinton's first inaugural. Since then, we've had less memorable recitations by Miller Williams, father of country singer Lucinda Williams, in 1997, and Elizabeth Alexander, who read "Praise Song for the Day" at President Barack Obama's inauguration four years ago.

Surveying the short history of presidential verse, Yahoo News began to wonder what would happen if inaugural poets might be inspired to raise their games. Without exactly staging a poetry slam, we turned to some of our favorite living poets: Would they compose something for Obama this time around?

We commissioned work from two Pulitzer Prize winners, James Tate and Paul Muldoon; the Japanese-American superstar Brenda Shaughnessy, whose latest book was called "monumental" by The New Yorker; and Kevin Young, whose recent book "The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness" was just nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award. For good measure—and yes for a little glamour—we included James Franco, the movie star, who has a book of poetry forthcoming from Graywolf Press.

Mindful of the fact that inaugural poetry is meant to be performed, we asked some of the poets to read or recite their work on camera. Kevin Young and Paul Muldoon were filmed by Yahoo! Studios, while James Franco went lo-fi in a shadowy amateur vid that shows a whole new side of the matinee idol.

As you'll see, the poets delivered extraordinary interpretations of the assignment—poems that can, in our humble opinion, stand beside even "The Gift Outright" in ingenuity and sheer beauty. They are terse, colloquial, wordy, formal. They rhyme, praise, dissent, scoff.

We hope you'll agree. But if you don't, we hope you'll disagree—and tell us how you think the poets might have captured the occasion better.

President Obama himself has commissioned an inaugural poem from Richard Blanco, a gay engineer and Cuban immigrant. We'll see how Blanco measures up! Let the verse jamboree begin.


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