The reading from Cuban-American poet Richard Blanco at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration ceremony today follows a tradition that began 52 years ago, when John F. Kennedy invited his fellow New Englander Robert Frost to read at his inaugural.
Frost was an early supporter of Kennedy. On his 85th birthday (March 26, 1959) he was asked by a reporter about the decline of New England’s cultural influence in America. “The next President of the United States will be from Boston,” replied Frost, according to Poets.org. “Does that sound as if New England is decaying?” At that time Kennedy had yet to formally announce his candidacy, so Frost was asked to explain who he was talking about. “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.” When President-elect Kennedy invited the 86-year-old poet to read a poem at his inauguration, if it was not too arduous, Frost cabled his response:
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.
Frost wrote a new poem, “Dedication,” especially for the occasion. But conditions on inauguration day conspired against the old poet. A heavy blanket of snow fell on Washington the night before, and the sunlight that day was intense. In the harsh glare from the sun and snow, Frost found that he couldn’t read the typescript of his new poem. Kennedy had earlier asked Frost, if he wasn’t going to write a new poem, to consider reading his poem on American history, “A Gift Outright.” So when Frost found that he couldn’t read the new poem, he recited “A Gift Outright” from memory.
In the video above, we hear Frost reading the poem, which was written in the late 1930s and first published in 1942. Although some have said the audio is from the Kennedy inauguration, it apparently is not, because Frost reads the original text. For the inauguration, the poet reportedly agreed to Kennedy’s request to make a change in the final line. The phrase “Such as she would become” was changed to a more optimistic “Such as she will become.” (You can read the full text of the poem in a new window.) Sometime after the event, Kennedy put Frost’s inaugural appearance in perspective:
I asked Robert Frost to come and speak at the inauguration because I felt he had something important to say to those of us who are occupied with the business of government, that he would remind us that we were dealing with life, of hopes and fears of millions of people. He has said it well in a poem called “Choose Something Like a Star,” in which he speaks of the fairest star in sight and says, “It asks little of us here./It asks of us a certain height./So when at times the mob is swayed/to carry praise or blame too far,/we may choose something like a star/ to stay our mind on and be stayed.”