Monday, January 26, 2009

Somewhere North of Boston

I had originally planned to post this column last week (January 19). Instead, I offered up the first of what will be an occasional "Entr’acte" when I am unable to post my regular weekly essay on its scheduled date. In this instance, I was on what has become an annual early winter escape to northern New England to enjoy certain activities best accomplished when there is plenty of snow on the ground. This trip also coincided with a desire to flee Washington to evade the security headaches surrounding the inauguration of President Obama. With this plan in mind, I set off to commune with the spruce and moose. An unexpected blizzard and a dearth of wi-fi connections in the Great North Woods necessitated the inclusion of this first "Entr’acte" as I did not want to leave you, my patient readers, up in the air. So here is the piece I originally planned to post last week.

Traveling through northern New England during the winter I recalled some favorite lines from Robert Frost:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

Of course, these lines are from "Stopping by Woods on a Snow Evening," first published in 1923 and found in New Hampshire. The poem concludes with the now famous verse:

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

During my travels I found myself driving many miles each day before I slept. I have been thinking and reading a lot about Frost lately. The catalyst of this rediscovery of a long-favorite poet was my reading of Brian Hall’s recent biographical novel, The Fall of Frost, a book recommended to me by Bruce Guernsey, the editor of the Spoon River Poetry Review and a Frost scholar who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the use of metaphor in Frost’s poetry, and more recently a fishing buddy on waters near his home in Bethel, Maine.

Another reason to think again on Robert Frost? Last week we witnessed the inauguration of a new American President and the excitement and expectation surrounding the new Obama presidency had several pundits, politicians, and poets drawing comparisons to the inauguration of John F. Kennedy 48 years ago. As I drove through New Hampshire and Vermont I listened to the festivities back in Washington on my car radio. It was a cold, sunny day, much like that day in January 1961.

I remember that day very well. It was a cold and snowy day in Asheville, North Carolina where I was living at the time. Schools were closed and so I was able to stay home and watch the Kennedy inauguration on television. It was my first memory of Robert Frost when the elderly poet stood at the East Portico of the U.S. Capitol, the first American poet ever invited to participate in this national political pageant. I’ll be honest; I don’t remember Kennedy’s stirring speech in which he asked all Americans to consider what they might do for their country. But I do remember Robert Frost, the poet with a large, square face and a thick crop of white hair, when he asked the same question in his own inimitable way.

Kennedy and Frost were both New Englanders - Kennedy by birth and Frost by choice. Frost had once intimated that new England was in decay - a "compost heap" which gave America its poets and politicians. And so the poet spoke highly of the Massachusetts senator when he ran for the Presidency. As early as 1959 Frost predicted that the next president would be from New England. When pressed for more details, Frost offered up Kennedy’s name, calling him the "Puritan from Boston." Kennedy was familiar with Frost and his poetry, and he wrote to the poet in April of that year, on the occasion of Frost’s 85th birthday, apologizing that by doing so he might in some way steal some of Frost’s thunder on that special day. So, when Kennedy won the election, it is not surprising that the most famous living poet of New England would be standing next to him when he took office. But it was an Arizonan (and my fellow University of Arizona alumnus), Stewart Udall, who was responsible for Frost’s presence on the rostrum that morning.

A couple weeks after the November 1960 election, Frost arrived in Tucson by train to read at the dedication of the new Poetry Center at the University of Arizona. As the Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress, and while meeting with various politicians in Washington, Frost let it be known that he was prepared to comment on affairs of state. Udall, a young Arizona Congressman and a close friend of Kennedy, used the occasion of Frost’s visit to Tucson to inquire whether the poet might consider reading something at Kennedy’s upcoming inauguration. A short time later, over dinner at Kennedy’s Georgetown home, Udall told the President-Elect of his idea to which he joked that Frost might now find a way to steal his thunder in January. Nevertheless, the invitation was extended and accepted. "If you can bear at your age the honor of being made President of the United States," Frost wrote in a December 14, 1960 letter to Kennedy, "I ought to be able at my age to bear the honor of taking some part in your inauguration." Despite his deference to the new President, Frost was fully cognizant of his place in history. "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."

Kennedy asked Frost whether he might write a short poem especially for the inaugural festivities, but he seemed more than reluctant to do so. Frost did, however, agree to read one of his better known poems, "The Gift Outright," first published almost 20 years earlier, in The Witness Tree. He also acquiesced to Kennedy’s request that he alter a single but important word in the final line.

Frost would ultimately write a small poem - "Dedication" - for the inauguration and worked on it until late into the eve of the inaugural. His secretary then stayed up late to type it so it would be ready the following morning. When Udall retrieved Frost only a couple hours before he was scheduled to read at the inaugural Frost revealed this new poem to a surprised Stewart Udall, wondering if he might have time to read it as well. The new poem was twice as long as "The Gift Outright" and, unfortunately, the typescript prepared the night before was too difficult for Frost to read. Udall scurried about at the Capitol to have a more legible copy prepared in time for the ceremony.

The rest of the story is well-known. When it came time to read his poem, the bright glare of the sun on that cold, wintry day made it difficult for the elderly Frost to read the freshly minted and newly typed inaugural poem. Vice President Johnson stepped forward and tried to use his top hat to shade the text, but Frost brushed him aside and attempted to read the new poem. Finally, he put the pages aside and recited "The Gift Outright" in a strong and steady voice.

The land was ours before we were the land’s.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England’s, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
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)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.

As promised, Frost altered the last line of the poem: "Such as she was, such as she would become, and – and for this occasion let me change that to – what she will become." I think James Reston was correct when he wrote in The New York Times shortly after the inauguration that every time Frost came to the capital "the Washington Monument stands up a little straighter." Unfortunately, Robert Frost’s appearance at the Kennedy inauguration is one of the last public memories of this great American poet. He would die two years later, on January 29, 1963.

This is a lot to think about sitting in a car and listening to President Obama’s inaugural address on the radio. But then I thought back to my trip which was quickly coming to an end, and remembered how I always experience a great solace anytime I find myself somewhere north of Boston. Frost must have felt it to in his own time as he admits in his poem "Good Hours":

I had for my winter evening walk –
No one at all with whom to talk,
But I had the cottages in a row
Up to their shining eyes in snow.

NEXT WEEK: Remembering Andrew Wyeth

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