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Don’t Get Frosted, Wear Sunglasses…
That’s a nugget of advice to Richard Blanco, served up by David Ward at the Smithsonian as he meditates on the role of poetry in the presidential inauguration. Much skepticism exists about the role of poetry in such a public spectacle—can this marginal art rise to the occasion?, can the poem escape the orbit of propaganda?, can the poem simply be good? After all, Ward reminds us that Blanco has to submit three (yes, three!) poems to be selected by Obama’s staff (here, literary agent suggests something decidedly ominous). We wonder how Blanco can churn out three poems, one of which is destined for the history books, in a matter of two weeks. Whatever poem does end up clearing the literary hurdles of team Obama, Blanco may want to take a lesson from Robert Frost and commit said poem to memory. David Ward reminds us why:
President Clinton brought back the inaugural poem perhaps seeking a connection with his youth as well as the ideals he hoped to embody since it was President Kennedy’s inaugural that saw perhaps the most famous example of public poetry in American history. Famously, the 86-year-old Robert Frost, a rock-ribbed Rebublican, agreed to read. A flinty, self-reliant New Englander, the poet had been beguiled by the attractive figure of the young Bostonian Democrat. Kennedy, shrewdly courted the old bard—undoubtedly America’s most famous poet—and convinced Frost, against his better judgment, to compose a poem to read at the swearing in. Frost, battening on to the Kennedy theme of a new generation coming to power, struggled to produce an enormous and bombastic piece on the “new Augustan age.” He was still writing the night before the ceremony.
Amazingly, Frost was unable to deliver the new work: facing east into the noon day, he was blinded by the glare off the snow that had fallen over night and could not read the manuscript of his newly completed ode. So Frost, from memory, recited “The Gift Outright” his paean to America’s foreordained triumphalism: “The land was ours before we were the land’s.”
Ward then imagines the tone Frost would have set for the 1960s if he had read other works from his corpus:
If the speaking platform had faced west as it does now, all this drama and inadvertent symbolism would have been avoided as Frost could have delivered his giant pudding of a poem. Accidentally, “The Gift Outright” jibed perfectly with JFK’s call to arms and a call to service that troubled only some at the time. But Frost practically was forced to recite “The Gift Outright” once he lost his eyes. It is the only one of his poems that would suit the public needs of the occasion. Imagine the consternation if he had recited the ambiguous and frightening lines of “The Road Not Taken” or the premonition of death in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowing Evening”: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep.” Reading from “Fire and Ice” at that Cold War moment would have gotten the Kennedy Administration off on the wrong foot: “Some say the world will end in fire,/Some say in Ice./From what I’ve tasted of desire,/I hold with those who favor fire.” This could have caused panic if not incomprehension among political observers.
One wonders what counter-futures will inhabit Monday’s inauguration. If Blanco doesn’t have time to memorize his poem, Ward suggests he should at least keep a pair of sunglasses handy.