Yesterday at the Kennedy Center, there was a ceremony honoring the 50th anniversary of JFK's inauguration. The ceremony included recitation of Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken," which a WTOP reporter today said was the poem Frost read at the inauguration. That sounded off to me, so I looked it up. The story is far more interesting than I ever knew.
This is from a NYT story at the time:
So touched was Mr. Frost at having "poetry brought into the affairs of statesmen" at last that he composed some verses of gratitude to be a prelude to his recitation.
Just before Mr. Kennedy took the oath of office shortly after noon, Mr. Frost came to the lectern. The cold wind riffled his white hair. With trembling hands, he unfolded his manuscript under the microphones and began reading the verses in a somewhat halting voice.
The wind blew at the edges of the paper. The bright sun blurred the words. He got as far as the line, "this seems something for us artists to celebrate," and stopped in confusion.
He muttered, "I am not having a good light here at all," and the microphones picked it up. The crowd applauded.
Vice President Johnson got up and tried to shade the manuscript with his top hat.
Mr. Frost waved him aside.
"This," he said, "was to have been a preface to a poem which I do not have to read."
Then, throwing back his shoulders, he began to recite in a voice become young and resonant.
Instead of reading the poem he had written for the event, called "Dedication," Frost recited from memory "A Gift Outright." Both "Dedication" and "A Gift Outright" are poems about America. Specifically, they are about the American Revolution, and the beautiful fruit yielded from spilling blood.
"A Gift Outright" (the poem Frost recited) was about how we owned and lived on this soil for decades before we were American. Here is what I think is the heart of the poem:
Something we were withholding made us weak.
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
The image in my mind is one of us mixing our blood and sweat with the soil, and thus uniting ourselves with the land. It reminds me of the Gospel verse, "Amen, amen I say to you, unless the grain of wheat falling into the ground die, abides alone; but if it die, it bears much fruit."
And "Dedication" seems to be about how our revolution was reverberating in the eruptions of anti-colonial independence, and the struggle against Communist tyranny. Here's my favorite part of that poem, though
Our venture in revolution and outlawry
Has justified itself in freedom's story
Right down to now in glory upon glory.
Both of these poems are pugnacious, echoing of American exceptionalism, and a bit bloody. The Kennedy's decision to trade them out for "The Road Not Taken," is an interesting one.
p.s. Bonus detail: The eve of Kennedy's inauguration was also the occasion for the first date between a young aide to LBJ and a youngish reporter named Bob Novak. The snow kept the pair from making an inaugural concert at Constitution Hall, and so they "drank scotch and smoked cigarettes," closing out the bars at the Press Club and the Mayflower. After dropping her off and then getting home himself, Novak got to bed at 4 am. By 8 am he was at JFK's Georgetown home to begin covering the day.