by Kent Oswald
Given the historical, political and cultural touchstone that is Robert Frost reading “The Gift Outright,” when President Kennedy readied himself for the years ahead on that brisk January 1961 morning, it seems poets should always have taken part in inauguration festivities. They haven’t. Maybe the hit-and-miss aspect of this cultural rite is better explained by Frost—the first poet to read at an American president’s inauguration—having planned to recite his new, unmemorized “Dedication” before switching to a dearly familiar poem because it was cold, windy, and he was having trouble reading from his pages. (Though some believe the finer quality and ambiguous tone of “The Gift Outright,” the poem he ultimately read at the event, points to a bit of clever engineering by the poet himself.)
Only four poets have followed Frost to the inaugural podium, and none were tapped, as he was, to negotiate with Russia. Maya Angelou read “On the Pulse of Morning” for Bill Clinton in 1993, while Miller Williams inducted him into his second term with “Of History and Hope.” In 2009 Elizabeth Alexander greeted Barack Obama’s election with “Praise Song for the Day,” while Richard Blanco toasted to the dawn of his next four years with “One Today.” Apparently, Republicans do not dig the verse, nor did Democrats Carter or Johnson, whether blank or free. Though nothing can be assured for January 2017 regarding poetry, given how the Republican primary has traveled the road not taken this year, they may reverse their party tradition and give poetry a chance. And hope, among other themes, is a wellspring of verse.
What if voters judged POTUS-to-Bes at least in part by their assumed (if not overtly stated) choice of who would speak for them on the day they pledged “to faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States?” Or what if, dear readers, you collectively rally to the cause of inaugural poet/poem betting pools—that could become a thing, right? (Because gambling on something always makes it more popular.)
In either case, as a potential, undecided voter or as an early enlistee in Erato’s Army, you deserve the early book on the poets in the running to read for the candidates who themselves are still in the running. Recognizing time is of the essence as primaries have begun, and, candidacies are increasingly suspended or in the throes of suspending, here’s a down and dirty guide. (With apologies that neither time nor temperament allows for troubadourial wordsmith prediction to be made about the full list of nearly 1600 souls who registered with the Federal Election Commission as presidential aspirants.)
Blue Party Pols
Hillary Clinton, the Democrats’ current leader in the race to the nomination, may well select Donald Hall, the well regarded, relatively uncontroversial, mildly academic poet whose themes are safe and not particularly threatening to any in mainstream America.
The primary Primary challenger, Bernie Sanders, is likely to have Hawaiian recluse W.S. Merwin high on his list. The progressive politician would be well represented with a message that is on the surface easy to grasp, but has within its foundation an undercurrent of personal philosophy some might consider a threat.
For reasons unclear, Ballotpedia includes a third name, Roque De La Fuente, in the Democratic race. Trying to come across as an every man, combining common sense and a sense of humor, the only choice that makes sense for this most longshot-y “Rocky” is Billy Collins, arguably America’s most well-known and down-to-earth verbal balladeer.
Red Party Pols
Across the political divide, Donald Trump leads Team Elephant largely because he knows how to go big and has, apparently, no idea how to go home. It is a fool’s errand to predict what Trump might do, but it wouldn’t be the most outrageous thing on his resume to opt for Kanye West as his inauguration day Trumpeteer (even though The Life of Pablo genius—just ask him—may be gearing up for his own run in 2020).
Next in line, according to current polls, candidate Ted Cruz, despite Ivy League connections, is unbound by allegiance to East Coast norms. Showcasing his non-establishment anti-DCness, he could stay out of the box with Larry D. Thomas, a Navy vet out of Texas who retired from work in criminal justice and has often set work against of lonely western landscapes.
Expect Marco Rubio, even inasmuch as he has inexplicably become the GOP establishment’s candidate, to make some sort of shoutout to his Tea Party roots. To that end, Leo Yankevich, chief proselytizer for The New Formalism school of poetry, would be a solid thematic choice, given the work’s (and likely the Rubio administration’s) embrace of the reimagining of past glories.
The other “Mr. Establishment,” Ohio’s own John Kasich, seems on course to make Charles Wright his first term poet eminence. Wright is an American poetry establishment fixture, tracing his own growth from the early influence of Ezra Pound, whose own politics had a certain, modern GOP je ne sais quoi.
While everyone on this list (at the time of its scribbling) except Ms. Clinton and Mr. Trump are considered unlikely to assume the @POTUS twitter account, the non-aligned seem to have even less of a chance. Still, just in case somebody’s fantasy comes through, Libertarian Gary Johnson could provide Ron Silliman the opportunity to showcase some cross pollination between socialist imagery and libertarian theology, while the Green’s Jill Stein might well display the stylings of the natural that James Galvin so vibrantly brings to the page. Also, while Michael Bloomberg, should he run, could afford to rent out pretty much any poet, living or dead, anyone who has followed his path as mayor of NYC would not be surprised to find him reading his own work on the day of his presidential ascension. Finally, if the least likely of all scenarios were to play out and the former pro wrestling Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura not only runs, as he threatens, but also wins, nothing would pull back the curtain at the outset of a Ventura administration more than a poem already written in his honor (or, perhaps, co-honor since it also features Gorilla Monsoon) by none other than Leaping Lanny Poffo, author of the chapbook Limericks from the Heart.
As for the poems the actual chosen balladeer will read, you dear reader can finally be “The Decider.” Click on the book covers above to purchase them to shore up your poetry library, as well as to your odds advantage, just in case choosing the actual poem goes on to settle ties in your Fantasy Poet pool.
Finally, in recognition of Easy Street Magazine as the world’s leading prognosticator on inauguration poets and poetry, our lawyers require us to warn all readers that when consumed in any and all locales where gambling on poets is not legal, the information above may only be used for education and entertainment purposes. We cannnot condone gambling on the written or spoken word and give no permission for this essay to be used for any games (or even pools) of chance.