Sunday, January 23, 2011

Frost 50 years later (early '61)

From a New Yorker-affiliated blog:

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January 20, 2011
Robert Frost and J.F.K., Fifty Years Later
Posted by Ian Crouch

Robert Frost at JFK inauguration.jpgIt was a bright and blustery day in Washington fifty years ago today for the inauguration of John F. Kennedy. An old newsreel reporting the day’s events notes that the city was recovering from a blizzard and that “battalions of snow fighters kept Pennsylvania Avenue clear for the swearing-in ceremony.” That earnest footage also communicates the enthusiasm that accompanied the event for many in the country. It was “the smoothest transition of power in history” from Eisenhower to Kennedy, the newsreader informs us. Nixon, recently defeated, even manages to smile brightly. Yet it was a new day, a new age: Kennedy was, at forty-three, then the youngest President and the first born in the twentieth century. (The past, though, had not been completely thrown off, judging by the top hats that Eisenhower and Kennedy wore to some of the festivities.)

The anniversary marks Kennedy’s brief but era-defining inauguration address, but it also marks another coming together of custom and modernity, of the past and the future: the eighty-six-year-old Robert Frost reciting “The Gift Outright,” which ends with the lines:

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.

Frost was born in another century, and would die a little more than two years later. Photographs from the event show him stooped and braced against the weather: the wind and glare that day prevented him from reading his poem, “Dedication,” so he recited “The Gift Outright” instead, the Washington Post remembered this week. In a way, Frost’s appearance seems as incongruous as those top hats; I remember as a kid being shocked that Frost and Kennedy could have ever met, let alone have shared a stage. To my younger mind, any poet as famous as Frost must have been a contemporary of Hawthorne’s or something, from another time completely. Not so, of course, but I’ve not entirely shaken the idea.

The swearing-in of a new President has produced notable work from other writers. There’s Jonathan Franzen’s exceedingly fine and sad essay, “Inauguration Day, January 2001,” which is collected in “How to be Alone.” Franzen’s title alludes to Robert Lowell’s “Inauguration Day, January 1953,” a somber mood piece out of New York, another city locked in winter’s cold grip, with its eyes glancing toward Washington and Eisenhower:

Ice, ice. Our wheels no longer move.
Look, the fixed stars, all just alike
as lack-land atoms, split apart,
and the Republic summons Ike,
the mausoleum in her heart.