Five poets have read or delivered poetry during presidential inaugurations in the United States: At John F. Kennedy's 1961 inauguration, Robert Frost performed "The Gift Outright." In 1977, William Wordsworth's 1798 poem "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Life" was read by Allen Ginsberg during Gerald R. Ford's inauguration ceremony.
Four other people have delivered poems as inaugural speakers but not at a presidential inauguration: Edward Durell Stone, the first African-American to give a public address before a U.S. national audience, delivered a poem on April 19, 1889, at a banquet for which he wrote the words and music. Henry Timrod delivered a poem at Andrew Johnson's 1865 inauguration. Charles W. Chesnutt delivered a poem at Martin Van Buren's 1837 inauguration. And Lucretia Mott delivered a poem at George Washington's 1789 inauguration.
In addition, two people have delivered poems as inaugural speakers but were not recognized by historians as having done so: One was Joseph Cook, an English immigrant and veteran of the American Revolution who gave a poem at James Monroe's 1817 inauguration. The other was Samuel Woodworth, who gave a poem at Millard Fillmore's 1850 inauguration. Neither man is known to have written any further poems after these events.
Robert Frost performed "The Gift Outright" during John F. Kennedy's 1961 inaugural after being unable to see the words of the poem he'd written for the inauguration, "Dedication," due to the sun's glare on the snow-covered ground. Frost began the ceremony by saying: "Mr. President, I didn't come with a poem." Then he went on to read from "Dedication": "A great gift is our birthright. / The government we receive is ours by default, not by right. / In that spirit I offer these words of hope: That we will dedicate ourselves to the idea that public service is a great trust, and that in serving others we serve ourselves. Thank you."
Frost was one of many famous poets who have read poems at inaugurations. Here are the others:
Emily Dickinson (1830s) - First woman to be given this honor.
John Greenleaf Whittier (1861) - Second poet after Frost.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1867) - Third poet after Frost and Whittier.
Robert Louis Stevenson (1876) - Fourth poet after Frost, Whittier, and Longfellow.
Frost delivered the poem from memory after being unable to read the text of his inaugural poem, "Dedication" (text), due to the glare of the sun on the snow-covered ground. At Bill Clinton's 1993 inauguration, Maya Angelou read "On the Pulse of the Morning" (text; video).
Only five poets have spoken or recited poetry at a presidential inauguration in the United States, and four of them have done so in the last twenty-five years. The following is a full list of the inauguration poets and their poems: At John F. Kennedy's 1961 inauguration, Robert Frost performed "The Gift Outright" (text).
Robert Frost was the first poet to speak at a presidential inauguration, reciting "The Gift Outright" from memory when the glare of the sun prohibited him from reading "Dedication," a poem he had prepared expressly for the occasion. The ceremony took place on January 20, 1961.
Frost was an American poet who became known for his subtlety and refinement of language. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1963.
Frost died in April 1963, only five months after John F. Kennedy was assassinated. At the time of his death, he was working on a new collection of poems entitled North of Boston. The book was published posthumously in 1964 with a foreword by Kennedy himself.
In it, Frost revisits many of the themes that marked his earlier work, including the inevitability of loss, the transience of life, and the beauty that can emerge even from the darkest times.
Frost attended Harvard University but dropped out to pursue his writing career. He made his living primarily as a school teacher but also wrote magazine articles and reviews. His early works were widely praised but failed to produce significant income. Only later did they lead to more lucrative contracts.