Frost / Kennedy

On Monday, Barack Obama will be sworn in for a second term as America's president. As always, hopes are high for what he might say, particularly given the coincidence of this inauguration with Martin Luther King Day. As well as his speech, for which we have such high hopes, the ceremony will include music and poetry. This year's poet is Richard Blanco, a 44-year-old gay Cuban American civil engineer turned prize-winning poet. Last time around, it was Elizabeth Alexander whose poem, Praise Song for the Day", I've mentioned before. It's hard to imagine the pressure of conceiving or bringing a poem to that occasion, but I'm glad they still expect someone to try. And what else is poetry good for if not to be the “moment’s monument”? 

I was intrigued to learn that John F Kennedy was the first president to include poetry in the ceremony. The poet was Robert Frost, then 86 years old. Frost had named Kennedy as the next president long before Kennedy announced any intention to run in 1960. In his campaign, Kennedy would often close his stump speech with two lines from Frost: “But I have promises to keep, / And miles to go before I sleep.” When he was elected, he asked Frost to read at his inauguration, and even named the poem he wanted: “The Gift Outright." Frost agreed, but then wrote another, much longer poem, which he typed up on hotel note paper in Washington the night before the ceremony. On the day, wind and glare made the typed poem hard for him to read, so he simply recited the other poem, Kennedy's first choice, from memory. Afterwards, his advice to Kennedy was to govern with “poetry and power,” to which Kennedy responded: “It's poetry and power all the way!" Read more about the poet and the president here

I find the story lovely, but the poem itself less so. It speaks to a different sensibility from the one Blanco will draw on and perhaps, if we're lucky, immortalise. I would have guessed it's not exactly the sensibility surrounding Kennedy's election, either, with its nostalgic backward glance and glorification of settlement, but I wasn't there. Kennedy obviously thought it was perfect for his moment, the monument he required. Here it is:
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.