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Inaugural Poetry

Grade Levels: 5 - 8

Objectives

  • Students will read and respond to poetry.
  • Students will learn about the history of inaugural poetry.
  • Students will discuss poetic devices.

Materials

Procedures

  1. Discuss the history of poetry at U.S. presidential inaugurations. Here is some background information.
    Five times in U.S history, poetry has been read at presidential swearing in ceremonies*. Robert Frost read his poetry for John F. Kennedy in 1961. Bill Clinton asked Maya Angelou to read her work for his 1993 inauguration. In 1997 Clinton again asked a poet, fellow Arkansas native Miller Williams, to read for the inauguration. Barack Obama asked poet Elizabeth Alexander to present an original work for his 2009 inauguration. Following Barack Obama's re-election, poet Richard Blanco read "One Today," a new poem he wrote for the 2013 inauguration.

    Robert Frost certainly reflected Kennedy's background of New England pride and prominence. By asking Angelou to read, Bill Clinton started his presidency speaking to the power of diversity and inclusion in a true democracy. The choice of Richard Blanco as an inaugural poet reflected Barack Obama's emphasis on equality, unity, and gay rights in his inaugural address.

    All of these poems are beautiful works of art, but have also become political documents, speaking to specific moments of time in the U.S.

    A side note: Robert Frost actually wrote "Dedication" for John F. Kennedy's swearing-in ceremonies. When the sunlight made it difficult for Frost to read his poem, he recited a poem he knew by heart, "The Gift Outright."

  2. Distribute poems.
  3. Organize students into small groups, asking each group to discuss and analyze one poem. Ask students to answer some or all of the following questions in their groups. Groups can hand in their answers, or simply relay what they discussed after the group work is complete.
    1. How does this poem reflect the times during which it was written?
    2. How does the poet make us think about the past? How does the poet make us think of the future?
    3. What are the poet's dreams for the future? Cite examples.
    4. Cite any examples of personification. How is personification used in each poem?
  4. After students have completed this assignment, ask one member of each group to read the poem aloud.
  5. Another student from each group should paraphrase the group's discussion of the poem.
  6. Open up the discussion for the whole class.

Additional Activities

  1. Ask students to write a poem that will inspire America as well as speak to her past and future.
  2. Ask students to find another poem that would be appropriate for an inaugural ceremony. Students could memorize the poems and then recite them in class.

*Jimmy Carter asked fellow Georgian James Dickey to compose a poem for the 1977 presidential inauguration. The original poem, "The Strength of Fields," was read by Dickey at the inaugural eve gala, not at the swearing-in ceremony.


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