As its name suggests, occasional poetry documents and reflects upon particular occasions, events both public and private, grand and less grand, from Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” to Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died” on the death of Billie Holiday. Often occasional poems are commissioned and intended for a public reading.
Through the ages, kings and queens have summoned poets to celebrate their triumphs. Since John F. Kennedy, most incoming Democratic presidents have invited poets to mark their accession to the highest office in the land. While presidents have typically taken a hands-off approach to the poem’s composition, President Kennedy asked Robert Frost specifically to read “The Gift Outright” at his inauguration and suggested a revision to the last line. At the president’s request, Frost changed “Such as she was, such as she would become” to “Such as she was, such as she will become.”
In 2013, President Barack Obama asked Richard Blanco to be his inaugural poet. Mr. Blanco’s occasional poem, “One Today,” describes a country under “one sun” and “one light,” where people toil on “one ground, our ground.” Reminiscent of Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago” and Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing,” the poem celebrates the common work of uncommon individuals.
Fortunately, writing occasional poems is nothing new for Ms. Gorman. She composed “In This Place (An American Lyric)” and performed it at the Library of Congress for Tracy K. Smith’s installation as U.S. Poet Laureate. After watching Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testify at the confirmation hearing of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, she wrote “We Rise.” She described that experience and read the poem in a PBS interview with Alicia Menendez.
Ms. Gorman was contacted by the Biden inaugural committee in late December. She was given no specific instructions on what to write but was urged to focus on unity and hope. The Times reports:
[Ms. Gorman] joins a small group of poets who have been recruited to help mark a presidential inauguration, among them Robert Frost, Maya Angelou, Miller Williams, Elizabeth Alexander and Richard Blanco.
But none of her predecessors faced the challenge that Gorman did. She set out to write a poem that would inspire hope and foster a sense of collective purpose, at a moment when Americans are reeling from a deadly pandemic, political violence and partisan division.
The article also describes how she had written most of the inaugural poem before the Jan. 6 siege at the U.S. Capitol, but stayed awake late into the night to finish, “adding verses about the apocalyptic scene that unfolded at the Capitol that day.”
Before you dive into the poem itself in the next section, put yourself in Ms. Gorman’s shoes. If you were asked to write a poem by the Biden inaugural committee, what are some things you might want it to communicate? Why?