In early December Nancy Benac of the Associated Press phoned me because she was working on a piece about the coming inauguration and she had read "A Poetry-Free Presidency," which I wrote for Salon on January 19, 2001. Would Obama ask a poet to deliver an ode for the occasion, as Kennedy and Clinton did, or would he follow in Bush's footsteps and shun the practice? And if the former, whom would he choose? This was days before the President-elect settled the debate and tapped the poet Elizabeth Alexander for the inaugural ceremony. Yet there remained much for an AP reporter to write about. What could a poet add to the occasion? How had previous inaugural poets fared? Have American presidents in the past been responsive to poetry?
In her excellent AP piece , Nancy Benac mentioned that The Best American Poetry website blog was staging a challenge for the best inaugural ode. Our rules were arcane enough to assure that contestants would invest time and thought into the project. To be eligible, a poem had to consist of four quatrains, had to include at least three words from a prescribed list (honor, integrity, faith, hope, change, power), and had to lift a line from "The Best American Poetry 2008." Nearly fifty poems came our way. All were read anonymously. Mark Strand, a former guest editor of The Best American Poetry, served as judge and chose Gerald Greland's "This Is the Dream" as the winner. R. S. Gwynn came in a strong second with "An Inaugural Prayer." Valentina Gnup and Michael Schiavo took home third-place honors.
In a subsequent phone conversation, Nancy Benac asked me if I would consider writing my own poem for the inauguration. She told me she was asking an array of other poets -- among them Julia Alvarez, Billy Collins, Bob Holman, Yusef Komunyakaa, Gary Soto, and Alice Walker -- to try their hand at it. I love a challenge, so I said yes, and I thought it only fair for my effort to comply with the rules we had established for the BAP inaugural ode competition. A week later, Bonny Ghosh of the Associated Press came to my apartment with cameras and sound equipment and taped me reading my "Poem for Obama."
Ten of these inaugural poems have been posted here and in some cases there's a video of the poet reciting his or her work.