Historical Moments: Inauguration Poetry

It's a tough task to write a poem grand enough for a presidential Inauguration but accessible enough for the wide swath of Americans tuning in—and artful enough to keep critics at bay. Only three poets have ever attempted it; on Jan. 20, Yale University professor Elizabeth Alexander will become the fourth. To offer her inspiration, here are a few superlative moments in the history of poetry and presidents.

Best line: According to former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins, it's the opening of Miller Williams's "Of History and Hope," written for Bill Clinton's second swearing-in: "We have memorized America."

Best recovery: Harsh winds prevented Robert Frost from being able to read "Dedication," written for John F. Kennedy's Inauguration. Disaster? Hardly. Frost kept cool and recited "The Gift Outright" from memory. Yale literary critic Harold Bloom says it wins for best Inauguration poem—even if (or rather, because) it wasn't the one Frost intended to deliver.

Best presidential poem (of a sort): No one asked Walt Whitman to commemorate the death of Abraham Lincoln. But we're lucky he did: Whitman's sublime "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," sprang from a historic moment but endures because of its poetic merit.

Join the Discussion