Poet Robert Frost and President Kennedy in the
Green Room at the White House. (AP File photo)
During observations from November 16 - 22, 2013, of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, various news commentators noted a history-changing event of a different kind involving the four-time Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Robert Frost.
When invited by President Kennedy to become the United States’ first presidential inauguration poet, Mr. Frost dutifully composed for the occasion a 77-line poem frequently referred to as “Dedication” and now published in his collected works, The Poetry of Robert Frost, as: “For John F. Kennedy, His Inauguration, With Some Preliminary History in Rhyme.” However, when attempting to read the poem at the ceremony on January 20, 1961, the glare of sunlight reflecting off snow made it impossible and Frost instead famously recited from memory the much shorter 16-line poem titled “The Gift Outright.”
With Kennedy’s assassination, Americans witnessed how human beings sometimes force upon history reference points defined by horror. With Frost’s move to adapt to unexpected conditions by reciting a shorter poem in place of the one he had written specifically for his president and country, onlookers witnessed how history sometimes leaves humanity no choice except to respect the nature of that reality known as change.
Politics and the Literary Arts
Just a few decades before President Kennedy handpicked the poet Frost to join him in making history, another president in the form of Franklin Delano Roosevelt had helped ensure the survival of poets and authors during the Great Depression with the creation of the Federal Writers’ Project in 1935. Through it, writers such as Sterling Brown, Claude McKay, and Richard Wright of the Harlem Renaissance also added to the historical substance of the literary arts in the United States.
The significance of the government’s official recognition of literature as a valued and powerful component of American life was not something Frost acknowledged in “The Gift Outright,” the poem he ended up reciting from memory. In that particular masterwork, he speaks of America’s founding and development as an act of destiny, describing it like this:
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…
He pays extended homage to the country as well in his inaugural poem, proclaiming that “Our venture in revolution and outlawry/ Has justified itself in freedom's story…” Of course the irony of those specific lines at that specific time was the momentum building behind the Civil Rights Movement. The African Americans at the helm of that movement––such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Harry Belafonte, and John Lewis (now Representative Lewis)–– envisioned very different scenarios when considering the words “revolution,” “outlawry,” and “freedom.”
Nevertheless, Frost’s poem captures perfectly the hope-filled spirit of “Camelot” in Washington, D.C., said to characterize Kennedy’s presidency during those early days. After all, whereas even a philosopher as revered as Plato had debated the place of the creative artists in society, Kennedy, like Roosevelt before him, had dismissed any such debate by giving said artists an appropriate assignment and by trusting him or her to carry it out accordingly.
Causes Aberjhani * Supports
I make contributions to a number of charities through my lenses on Squidoo but the following are a few that interest me the most: