January 14, 2011
by Aaron Belz
A key moment in American history occurred on January 20, 1961, when Robert Frost approached the podium at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration.
Having won four Pulitzers, Frost was already a poet of mythic proportions. He was also more than a poet; he was a statesman, a fixture in the American cultural imagination. In a century defined by technological progress, he embodied the Jeffersonian agrarian ideal more perfectly than any other writer. Poems that depicted drawing well water, pressing apples, and ambling down country lanes tended to glorify a version of America that we, even in the 1950s and 60s, knew was disappearing. So we memorized them; we cherished them.
Frost’s visual aspect was equally mythic: a head of white, windblown hair, white eyebrows that overhung his eyes, an oversized overcoat and fluffy scarf; large, powerful hands. At 84, he was nearly twice the age of the dashing young president-elect he was about to bless.
Kennedy, by contrast, was not only young but Catholic, Irish, urban, clean-cut and handsome, and spoke with a Bostonian lilt. The cultural symbolism of Kennedy had yet to be established. Looking back on him, from the perspective of 2010, we see a figure as compelling as Frost’s. The Kennedys represented a different but equally important kind of common-man America. In this inauguration, the torch was passed.
Because of the intense midday sun reflecting off of eight inches of new-fallen snow, Frost abandoned the poem he’d written for the occasion. This was a good thing, because “The Dedication” was not one of his most successful efforts. It begins:
Summoning artists to participate
In the august occasions of the state
Seems something artists ought to celebrate.
Today is for my cause a day of days.
And his be poetry's old-fashioned praise
Who was the first to think of such a thing.
Already it’s apparent that Frost had the occasion too much in mind when composing these lines, was too conscious of “poetry’s old-fashioned praise.” And although there’s precedent for this sort of gilded poesy in Frost’s oeuvre, it’s not what people loved about him. What they loved was his immediate, personal voice—his poems that begin, “I let myself in at the kitchen door” or “Spades take up leaves / No better than spoons” or “I have been one acquainted with the night.”
Even so, the First Lady had these handwritten words framed and hung as the first item of decoration in the Oval Office.
But there was the snowy glare, and the aptly named Frost recited from memory, “The Gift Outright.” What a gem, and how accidentally perfect for the occasion:
The land was ours before we were the land’s.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England’s, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.
No doubt this poem’s subtle ambiguities and blank verse were lost on most of the frozen thousands gathered that day, but it was an apt blessing from the elder statesman to the young politico: The deed of gift is many deeds of war. Ours is a story not merely of being but of becoming.
Kennedy responded to Frost’s blessing in an essay titled “Poetry and Power” which was published in The Atlantic after his death. Here’s a telling excerpt: “When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man's concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses, for art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstones of our judgment. The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state” (Feb. 1964).
As a way of marking the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s inauguration, consider ordering The Poetry of Robert Frost, published by Henry Holt & Co.
—Aaron Belz teaches English at Providence Christian College in Pasadena, California. His most recent collection of poems is titled Lovely, Raspberry (Persea, 2010).