Featured Poem: A Nation’s Strength by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Though he was officially sworn into office at noon yesterday, Barack Obama’s second Inauguration as 44th President of the United States is marked with a public ceremony today (21st January, 2013). To mark the occasion, this week’s Featured Poem honours President Elect Obama’s new term. (You can read an account of Election Night Elation from Chicago from four years ago in the Reader Online archive, as well as discovering The Reader Organisation’s personal connection with Obama…)

Obama’s second Inauguration is especially good news for Readers; the President’s love of literature has been well documented since his first victory in 2008 and many a reader, from home and afar, has been able to read up on Obama’s preferred choices to fill up their own reading lists. We’re particularly pleased to know that the President Elect is a fan of poetry – just days after he was first publicly voted into office he was photographed in Chicago carrying a copy of Collected Poems 1946-1984 by Derek Walcott (which is not a light read, at a hefty 500 pages), and in 2011 demonstrated his appreciation for the form and belief in the power of poetry at a poetry event held in the White House:

“Everybody experiences it differently. […] a great poem is one that resonates with us, that challenges us and that teaches us something about ourselves and the world that we live in.”

Some readers may even be surprised to know that Obama has dabbled in writing poetry himself; the New York Times unearthed two poems by the then-future President in a 1981 edition of a student literary journal called Feast. Is there no end to his talents? Decide for yourself by reading them here.

Poetry is playing a significant role in today’s Inaugration ceremony. Spanish-born, Miami-based poet Richard Blanco will become only the fifth poet to read at a Presidential Inauguration – following Robert Frost (1961), Maya Angelou (1993), Miller Williams (1997) and Elizabeth Alexander (2009). Personally selected by Obama, he will also be the first Latino immigrant and openly gay poet to read at the ceremony. On making his choice, Obama said that Blanco’s work will be “wonderfully fitting for an inaugural that will celebrate the strength of the American people and our nation’s great diversity”. He will be reading a specially written piece at the ceremony on the Inaugural theme of ‘Our People, Our Future’.

While we await the poetry of America’s future, for this week’s Featured Poem, we’re looking to its rich poetic past. As the founder of the Transcendental movement of the mid 19th century, Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of the most influential poets of America’s literary heritage – and he has left his mark on the President Elect, listed amongst literary and political greats such as Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln when Obama was asked to give his most significant personal influences. Stirring and hopeful, this poem – celebrating the strength of a great nation not due to its wealth, pride or military powers, but the people within it – seem as appropriate now more than ever, especially on this day when a great nation looks headlong into its future.

A Nation’s Strength

What makes a nation’s pillars high
And its foundations strong?
What makes it mighty to defy
The foes that round it throng?

It is not gold. Its kingdoms grand
Go down in battle shock;
Its shafts are laid on sinking sand,
Not on abiding rock.

Is it the sword? Ask the red dust
Of empires passed away;
The blood has turned their stones to rust,
Their glory to decay.

And is it pride? Ah, that bright crown
Has seemed to nations sweet;
But God has struck its luster down
In ashes at his feet.

Not gold but only men can make
A people great and strong;
Men who for truth and honor’s sake
Stand fast and suffer long.

Brave men who work while others sleep,
Who dare while others fly…
They build a nation’s pillars deep
And lift them to the sky.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

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