Poetry to Honor a Nation

January 20, 1993

Maya Angelou's presence at Bill Clinton's inauguration today marks the first time a poet has participated in a presidential swearing-in ceremony since Robert Frost appeared at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961.

The nation has come a long way in the interim, and Mr. Clinton's choice of Ms. Angelou is a fitting reminder of the vast social and demographic changes that have transformed America over the past three decades.

Mr. Frost's was the voice of a Norman Rockwell America of New England small towns and farms, a place where family values and hard work were taken-for-granted emblems of the national purpose and civic virtue. It was also, unapologetically, an America in which gender, racial and ethnic rights were but a shadow of what they are today.

Ms. Angelou is a black woman who grew up in Arkansas, as did Mr. Clinton, and whose experience was shaped by the Gothic tragedy that is Southern history. She was raped as a girl of 8 and for five years thereafter lived as a virtual mute, comforted only by the works of Shakespeare, Shelley, Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Robert Burns that she read voraciously in her segregated school.

The world discovered Ms. Angelou in 1970, when she published her autobiography, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," a recounting of her passage from sexual and racial abuse through self-acceptance and transcendence through art.

"Truly, poetry is the strongest language we have," Mr. Angelou remarked recently. "Poetry shows the human being at her/his strongest; at her/his best. So it seems to me a salient note that a president would know that poetry should be brought back onto center stage. It's very, very important, because it means there is a desire to strengthen the country in its finest way of strengthening. And I don't mean strengthen by arming, by ammunition, by explosives. But really strengthen in the soul, strengthen in the spirit, which is were real strength is found anyway."

Ms. Angelou's life and art are testimony to new beginnings and a vision of a reunited nation that does honor to both America and the man who has been chosen to lead it for the next four year.

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