Wasn’t it nice to have poetry during the inauguration again? I thought so, too.
Do you know who the first President to have poetry read during the inauguration ceremony was? John F. Kennedy. And in case you didn’t know who he chose, it was Robert Frost. A natural choice, being a fellow New Englander and all. But - stop me if you’ve heard this before - there was kind of a hitch during the reading.
Frost had composed a poem especially for the occasion, titled “Dedication.” Here’s how it starts:
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.
This verse that in acknowledgement I bring
Goes back to the beginning of the end
Of what had been for centuries the trend;
A turning point in modern history.
But Frost had just composed this one recently, and wasn’t very familiar with it. The sun glaring off the snowy hills around the Capitol made it too hard for him to read from the paper in his hand. So, instead, he substituted a poem he’d written in 1942, and recited it from memory. It’s called “The Gift Outright:”
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.
You can read the entire texts of both poems by clicking here. And you can see “The Gift Outright” in Frost’s own handwriting here. Frankly, I prefer the substitute poem to the one he composed for Kennedy. I was thinking about that during this past Tuesday’s ceremony, how hard it must be to write poetry on demand like that. Especially for such a significant occasion. I mean, geez, no pressure or anything. It makes sense that for poetry - which is such a distilled medium for expressing ideas and emotions - to really truly move the listener, it needs to come from a pure source.
But maybe that’s just me. What do you think? Is it possible to write a truly excellent poem at someone else’s request, with a deadline, and the pressure of knowing billions of people will hear you read it aloud for the first time? And what did you think of Elizabeth Alexander’s poem Tuesday?
This weeks Poetry Friday Round-Up is being hosted by Laura Purdie Salas, a gifted poet herself. You know it’ll be good.