Best of Poetry and Politics

In many ways, it is an unenviable task: 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, and author Elizabeth Alexander, a professor at Yale University, will become the fourth on Jan. 20. To offer her inspiration—and caution—here are a few superlative moments in the history of poetry and politics.

The best inaugural line: According to former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins, it's the opening line of Miller Williams's "Of History and Hope," written for Bill Clinton's second swearing-in: "We have memorized America." But from there, Collins says, "you could feel the poem caving in under the weight of the subject." Based on conversations with Williams, Collins says he believes the poet "became self-conscious about the task."

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

Best ' occasional ' ode: Though rare in America, "occasional poems" (named not for their frequency but for the special occasions that prompt them) are often solicited from British poets. Predictably, these tend not to have the lasting power of poetry born of creative inspiration. An exception, says Collins: Lord Alfred Tennyson's "The Charge of the Light Brigade," which honors the tragic British charge against Russian forces during the Crimean War.

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