It is a unique holiday for unlike Veterans Day in November it not only honors those who have served in the military, it particularly honors those who made the supreme sacrifice for their country so that we would have the freedom to celebrate whatever we wish. This is a very history-laden summer. This summer we mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day (June 6, 1944) and in July we mark the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.
We are blessed with an abundance of patriotic poetry. Some is what you might call “occasional” verse. For instance, two poems by perhaps America’s greatest poet, Walt Whitman: “O Captain! My Captain!” and “When Lilacs Last In the Dooryard Bloomed” are tied to the death of Abraham Lincoln. The poem I wish to focus on is Robert Frost’s “The Gift Outright.”
This poem is part of my first real political memory. I was a 13-year old glued to the television to watch John F. Kennedy’s inauguration on a brutally cold and sunny day in January of 1961. The poem would find me again many years later. The Fourth of July occurred during Southern Tech’s summer term. I found myself drafted by my colleague and mentor, Professor Bob Hays, into doing a reading at a short ceremony near the Southern Tech flagpole shortly before the bicentennial Fourth of July in 1976. The poem I read was “The Gift Outright.”
In 1961, Robert Frost was perhaps America’s best-known poet. Poets don’t make much money. Books of poetry seldom make their way to the best-seller lists. Poets make money by college teaching and by public readings. Frost was a good stage performer. He capitalized on his age, sometimes giving a reading in his old man’s New England voice with a shawl draped around his shoulders. For all the world, he was your kindly New England grandfather. There were poems to read that the public knew and loved: “Mending Wall,” “The Road Not Taken,” “The Wood Pile.” Frost cultivated his benign image but there was a darker side. In his poem,” Design” he asked if there really was any design to the universe and perhaps by extension any benevolent or malevolent Designer and you will not find a poem more full of marital strain and grief than “Home Burial” which refers to the death of an infant.
Frost admired JFK and had predicted that he would win the presidency. The admiration was mutual: Kennedy sprinkled lines from Frost’s poetry into his speeches.
“The Gift Outright” had been written during the Great Depression and Frost had written an introductory poem to go with it creating a composite new work. This was, “The Gift Outright of ‘The Gift Outright.’”
Frost had typed out the introductory portion the day before the inauguration and did not suspect the theatre that was to take place. The copy that Frost had produced was not very clear. Given his 86-year old eyes, bright sunlight and bad copy, Frost found that he could not read his text. To boot, the heater in the base of the podium managed to set it on fire. Frost improvised, reciting “The Gift Outright” from memory. The events were not much disturbed and there were surely those viewers and participants who were unaware of the complications.
“The Gift Outright” was worth the inconvenience.
“The land was ours before we were the land’s….Possessing what we were still unpossessed by,….Something we were withholding made us weak/ Until we found it was ourselves/ We were withholding from our land of living,/And for with found salvation un surrender.”
January 1961 was a unique episode in presidential inaugurations, the introduction of a poetic performance and the production of a poetic piece for the event.
( You may wish to use GOOGLE to find the entire texts.)