We Didn’t Always Pair Poets to Presidents: How Robert Frost Ended Up at JFK’s Inauguration
When Poetry Met Power in January, 1961
On January 20th, 1961 a poet read for the first time during a presidential inauguration. The idea to invite Robert Frost to “say” a poem during the ceremony originated not with John F. Kennedy himself but with Stewart L. Udall, an environmentalist, activist, former Arizona congressman and Secretary of the Interior designate, who had got to know Frost during his residency at the Library of Congress. It was a great notion and, though Kennedy joked that it could turn out to be a mistake because “you know that Robert Frost always steals any show he is part of,” he immediately saw the advantages in having the US’s most distinguished poet by his side as he was sworn in.
He must have seen, as the poet William Meredith later remarked, that Frost’s presence would focus attention on the incoming president as “a man of culture” and, on a purely analytical level, this was a sufficient PR coup in itself. Yet there were other reasons for including Frost in the celebrations, not least the fact that the notoriously oppositional old “Puritan” had backed the Kennedy campaign from the beginning. In fact, he had shown his support even before Kennedy announced his candidacy.
“The next President of the United States will be from Boston,” Frost declared during a gala dinner for his 85th birthday on March 26th, 1959. “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.”
Frost would reiterate his admiration for the junior senator from Massachusetts on numerous occasions, and just as Eleanor Roosevelt’s eventual endorsement appeared to align Kennedy’s political vision with the spirit and values of the New Deal, so Frost’s backing linked the youthful candidate to the latter-day Puritan ethic that Frost had come to embody, both in his writing and in his person. What Frost brought, in short, was resonance.
Having made his decision, Kennedy telegraphed Frost early in December 1960. The old poet replied by telegram the next day, his acceptance of the honor tinged with a sly dig at Kennedy’s supposed inexperience (to which Richard Nixon had made repeated reference during the presidential campaign):
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.
This latter remark, as naïve as it sounds today, is crucially important in our understanding of the relationship between Frost and Kennedy. We could dismiss his talk of a cause as rhetorical, the high-sounding language of public discourse, but that would be unfair for, like his friend Udall, Frost was prepared to pursue a careful but committed working relationship with those in power in order to pursue higher goals than mere fame or reflected glory.
Frost cared about the arts, and about poetry especially, both in the US and elsewhere (when he visited Russia in 1962, he would be sufficiently impressed by Khrushchev’s encouragement of poets such as Yevgeni Yevtushenko and Andrei Voznesensky—and by the rehabilitation of Anna Akhmatova—to call the Soviet leader “a great man”), and he felt artists should be ready to work with the state to serve a higher cause.
Years later, Stewart Udall recalled the following exchange with André Malraux during a Washington luncheon, in which Frost’s seeming naïveté about art and politics seems all too obvious in the face of a more sophisticated and politically experienced writer:
Frost: The Government can use a poet to serve its purpose—but when he is no longer useful, the Government has a right to cast him off.
Malraux: Yes, but that is not the ultimate truth. Think of Caesar Augustus. The poet Virgil was used by him, was part of his circle of advisers. But today Virgil is the one we remember.
Frost: But that was a long time coming.
Malraux: But isn’t that what we’re for?
But was Frost really being naïve here? Considering his commitment to democratic politics, on the one hand, and his chosen art, on the other, he would have felt that it was his duty to work with government, whenever he could, to further both causes, rather than to oppose power purely as a matter of course. He fancied himself a political animal, among other things. When he discovered that he was not (as he did later, on his return from Moscow), it hurt him badly, and even though he would still maintain that, when he was no longer useful, his government had every right to cast him off, he was dismayed by his failure.“Dedication” comes across as a rather thin piece of Augustan pastiche, in which Frost’s hopes for the arts blend with an outmoded triumphalist vision.
The initial telegram exchange gave way to a telephone conversation, during which Kennedy suggested the old poet might write something new for the ceremony. Then, when Frost rejected that idea as too demanding, they agreed he might read “The Gift Outright”—though, in a move that could have jeopardized the entire enterprise, Kennedy asked that the poem’s final line be changed to sound a more optimistic note than the original, which had been written during the Depression. That original poem ends:
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.
Kennedy suggested that “such as she would become” be altered to read “such as she will become” and, surprisingly, Frost agreed, if rather grudgingly. However, in spite of his refusal to contemplate such a task, he soon began working on a new poem especially for the occasion, a 67-line variation on the heroic couplet form that both celebrates the arts in public life and provides a revealing elaboration of a historical perspective that “The Gift Outright” only partly addresses.
Frost called this new poem simply “Dedication”—and it was his plan, until the very last minute, to read this, and not the altered version of “The Gift Outright,” at the inauguration.
That new work, conceived and executed in a remarkably short space, is in many ways a revelation of Frost’s mature political vision, an affirmation of a certain type of power that both echoes and interrogates Kennedy’s own vision of “what together we can do for the freedom of man,” especially in its final lines:
There is a call to life a little sterner,
And braver for the earner, learner, yearner.
Less criticism of the field and court
And more preoccupation with the sport.
It makes the prophet in us all presage
The glory of a next Augustan age
Of a power leading from its strength and pride,
Of young ambition eager to be tried,
Firm in our free beliefs without dismay,
In any game the nations want to play.
A golden age of poetry and power
Of which this noonday’s the beginning hour.
However, a close reading of “Dedication” reveals a darker side to its politics. It could be argued, for example, that the kind of imperialist thinking that led to Vietnam, just a few years later, is implied in the lines
We see how seriously the races swarm
In their attempts at sovereignty and form.
They are our wards we think to some extent
For the time being and with their consent,
To teach them how Democracy is meant.
And, while no direct mention is made of the wholesale eradication of native peoples and the invasion of Mexican land, the following lines would come to seem, at the very least unfortunate, as the 1960s began:
The new world Christopher Columbus found.
The French, the Spanish, and the Dutch were downed
And counted out. Heroic deeds were done.
Elizabeth the First and England won.
Now came on a new order of the ages
That in the Latin of our founding sages
(Is it not written on the dollar bill
We carry in our purse and pocket still?)
God nodded his approval of as good.
Reading that last line, it is hard not to think of Bob Dylan’s satirical song “With God On Our Side,” in which God’s approval is affirmed at the end of every verse, a scornful expression of disdain for America’s wars, from the killing of the Indians through the Spanish-American and Civil conflicts to the Cold War, about which Dylan’s young Midwestern protagonist knows nothing, except that he is supposed to hate and fear all Russians.
In the final analysis, “Dedication” comes across as a rather thin piece of Augustan pastiche, in which Frost’s hopes for the arts blend with an outmoded triumphalist vision with an all too evident whiff of Manifest Destiny taken for granted. Luckily the glare off the snow on Inauguration Day, combined with his weak eyesight, forced him to abandon this new and complex work; instead, he said “The Gift Outright,” its last line altered as agreed, and Kennedy became the 35th president of the United States.
Excerpted from The Music of Time: Poetry in the Twentieth Century by John Burnside. Copyright © 2020 by John Burnside. Published by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.