Poets and the American Presidency

I’m pleased to write that we have a published poet in the White House.

At age 19, Barack Obama had two of his poems published in Feast, a student newspaper at Occidental College. I learned this recently from National Public Radio (NPR). Additionally, an article in The New Yorker discussed the two poems:


At President Obama’s inauguration, Elizabeth Alexander read her poem “Praise Song for the Day.” It was thrilling for me to watch the inauguration and to hear Alexander’s lovely poem. Alexander has been criticized for “Praise Song for the Day.” I believe that this criticism is unwarranted.

At President Kennedy’s inauguration, Robert Frost (at age 87) read part of his new poem “Dedication” and recited “The Gift Outright.”

The relationship between poets and the American Presidency hasn’t always been this close.

In 2003, Sam Hamill declined an invitation from the George W. Bush White House (in the person of First Lady Laura Bush) to sit on a panel discussing poetry.

Hamill not only declined; he formed Poets Against the War. In a reading for his new collection of poetry, Almost Paradise: New and Selected Poems and Translations (2005), he discussed the invitation and how he could not attend as preparations for war with Iraq were being made. 

It wasn’t the first time a prominent poet has declined an invitation from the White House.

While I was reading about Adrienne Rich, I was startled to find this: “In 1997, Adrienne Rich refused the National Medal of Arts, stating that ‘I could not accept such an award from President Clinton or this White House because the very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this Administration.’ ” [Wikipedia uses a July 11, 1997 New York Times article as its source].

I was already aware that poet, novelist and activist Alice Walker wrote an open letter to President Clinton criticizing his policy toward Cuba.

With the Presidency of Barack Obama we have a new chapter in the story of poets and the American Presidency.

About Andrew Shattuck McBride

I am a writer, editor, writing coach, and consultant. I work in a variety of genres, including poetry, short stories, and creative non-fiction. I also have a couple of novels simmering on back burners. THANK YOU to Nan Macy of Village Books for taking this photo (June 2011).
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