The first poem ever uttered may have been an occasional poem.
I can see a fur-clad band of hunters out stalking prey. After a dexterous spear toss brings down a fat antelope, one of the members of the hunting party, no doubt the smartest and most handsome, is so moved by the anticipation of a succulent meal that he breaks into a lyrical chant praising the aim of the spear-thrower, the antelope itself, the clear weather that allowed the hunt, the fire on which the meat will be browned, etc. etc. And from such humble beginnings we later got around to "Beowulf."
The occasional poem remains with us. Most of us have been to a wedding or funeral at which someone reads a poem he or she composed for that occasion. The really good occasional poem gets at one of the enduring strengths of the art form: its ability to crystallize and capture in a flash complex situations and emotions.
But here's the rub: The darn things are hard as heck to write. How do you celebrate the newborn or newlywed without sopping the page with sentimentality? The funeral is in two days: Can you really get your language to rise to the level of art?
Probably the best-known occasion for an occasional poem is the presidential inauguration. Certainly it is the biggest venue for such a poem. People who haven't read or heard a poem in years get a brush with the art on that day in January. But has what they've heard in the four poems read at inaugurations lived up to the title of poetry? Well, yes and no, but like I said, the poems are hard to write, and this one would be the bear to beat all bears.
The inaugural poem tradition got off to a shaky start.
John Kennedy asked the renowned, and elderly, Robert Frost to read at his swearing-in. Frost agreed and composed a poem for the day, which arrived bright and blustery. In the glare, with the wind whipping the paper, the old man could not really see what he had written. But rather than drop the ball at poetry's big moment, Frost recited from memory another poem, "The Gift Outright," which turned out to be perfect for the occasion, with its wise opening line of "The land was ours before we were the land's." It also was much stronger than the one Frost wrote for the occasion.
Maybe the next three inaugural poets should have taken a cue from Frost and read poems already published. Even good poets can succumb to the pressure to produce.
For Bill Clinton's swearing in, Maya Angelou took a kind of throw-everything-into-the-grinder approach; what was heard from the capitol that day was a mishmash of images and thoughts. I remember groaning when I heard her begin, "A Rock, A River, A Tree/ Hosts to species long since departed,/ Marked the mastodon" because I knew thousands of people who hadn't read a poem since high school were thinking "now I remember why I don't like poetry -- it doesn't make any sense." It didn't. Too much pressure.
Miller Williams did better at Clinton's second inauguration, but he has written much better poems than the one he read that day. The title, "Of History and Hope," was a clue that it was biting off more than it could chew.
For Barack Obama's recent inauguration, poet Elizabeth Alexander composed a praise song, a form that comes out of an African tradition of celebrating and commemorating an event. She had to follow Obama's historic speech, a terrible spot to be in. The poem got off to a flat-footed start: "Each day we go about our business,/ walking past each other,/ catching each other's/ eyes or not, about to speak or speaking." Not exactly America singing its various carols. But she warmed up: "Say it plain: that many have died for this day." "Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day/ Praise song for every hand lettered sign,/ for figuring-it-out at kitchen tables." That's got the right details of the American experience.
I hope future presidents will continue the practice of having a poem read on that day in January. Hopefully, it sends readers to discover the published, and probably stronger, work of the poets. And it serves to remind that poetry can happen at the nation's capitol or around the kitchen table, if we stay alert for it. With National Poetry Month coming up in April, take the occasion to go read some poetry.