Poetry and Power: Robert Frost's Inaugural Reading

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2014
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When Robert Frost became the first poet to read in the program of a presidential inauguration in 1961, he was already well regarded in the capital: he read and dined at the White House; the Attorney General assisted his successful campaign to release Ezra Pound, who was under indictment for treason, from St. Elizabeth's Hospital; he was offered the Consultant in Poetry position by the Library of Congress; and the United States Senate passed a resolution naming Frost "America's great poet-philosopher." In the words of the poet William Meredith, the decision to include Frost in the inauguration "focused attention on Kennedy as a man of culture, as a man interested in culture." Kennedy's decision to include Frost, however, was more likely a personal gesture to the poet, who was responsible for much of the momentum early in the President's campaign.

On Marth 26, 1959, prior to a gala to celebrate his 85th birthday, Frost gave a press conference at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City. Among the questions asked was one concerning the alleged decline of New England, to which Frost responded: "The next President of the United States will be from Boston. Does that sound as if New England is decaying?" Pressed to name who Frost meant, he replied: "He's a Puritan named Kennedy. The only Puritans left these days are the Roman Catholics. There. I guess I wear my politics on my sleeve."

The national press picked up Frost's prediction that the junior Senator from Massachusetts, who had not formally declared his candidacy, would be elected the next President. Less than a month later, Kennedy wrote Frost, stating: "I just want to send you a note to let you know how gratifying it was to be remembered by you on the occasion of your 85th birthday. I only regret that the intrusion of my name, probably in ways which you did not entirely intend, took away some of the attention from the man who really deserved it—Robert Frost."

Frost repeated his prediction in many, if not most, of the lectures and public appearances he gave over the subsequent months, and continued to endorse the candidate whenever possible. Kennedy in return quoted from the final stanza of Frost's poem "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening" at the close of many of his campaign speeches: "But I have promises to keep, / And miles to go before I sleep."

In response to the news that Kennedy had won the election, Frost called the outcome "a triumph of Protestantism—over itself."

Stewart L. Udall, who had met Frost during his tenure as poetry consultant at the Library of Congress, and who was invited by Kennedy to serve as Secretary of the Interior, suggested Frost take part in the inauguration ceremonies. Kennedy jokingly responded, "Oh, no. You know that Robert Frost always steals any show he is part of."

Kennedy's invitation came to Frost by telegraph and the poet answered by the same means the following day:

IF YOU CAN BEAR AT YOUR AGE THE HONOR OF BEING MADE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES, I OUGHT TO BE ABLE AT MY AGE TO BEAR THE HONOR OF TAKING SOME PART IN YOUR INAUGURATION. I MAY NOT BE EQUAL TO IT BUT I CAN ACCEPT IT FOR MY CAUSE—THE ARTS, POETRY, NOW FOR THE FIRST TIME TAKEN INTO THE AFFAIRS OF STATESMEN.

 

Kennedy asked if Frost planned to recite a new poem. If not, could he recite "The Gift Outright," a poem Frost called "a history of the United States in a dozen [actually, sixteen] lines of blank verse." Kennedy also requested changing the phrase in the last line to "such as she will become" from "such as she would become." Frost agreed. The original last line, which Frost claims to have written in the middle of the Great Depression, was first published in the spring 1942 issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review and read, "Such as she was, such as she might become." It seemed appropriate that Frost agreed to further change the poem to reflect the optimism surrounding the new Presidency.

As inauguration day approached, however, Frost surprised himself by composing a new poem, "Dedication" (later retitled "For John F. Kennedy His Inauguration"), which he planned to read as a preface to the poem Kennedy requested. But on the drive to the Capitol on January 20, 1961, Frost worried that the piece, typed on one of the hotel typewriters the night before, was difficult to read even in good light. When he stood to recite the poem, the wind and the bright reflection of sunlight off new fallen snow made the reading the poem impossible. He was able, however, to recite "The Gift Outright" from memory.

Though Frost was somewhat embarassed by his faltering, it made for a memorable and dramatic moment. The Washington Post reported that Frost "stole the hearts of the Inaugural crowd," somewhat as Kennedy had jokingly predicted.

Before leaving, Frost called on the new President and First Lady at the White House to receive Kennedy's thanks for participating in the event. He presented Kennedy with a manuscript copy of the "Dedication" poem, on which he wrote: "Amended copy. And now let us mend our ways." He also gave the President the advice: "Be more Irish than Harvard. Poetry and power is the formula for another Augustan Age. Don't be afraid of power."

At the foot of the typed thank-you letter Kennedy sent, he wrote, "It's poetry and power all the way!"