Three Poems for Presidents


January 27, 1993|By TED HENDRICKS

Maya Angelou has been widely reported to have been only the second poet to read at the inauguration of an American president. This is true, but only in a narrow sense.

The first inaugural poet was, of course, Robert Frost. In January 1961, the 86-year-old Frost stood hatless in the bitter cold to read ''The Gift Outright'' at John F. Kennedy's inaugural.

Frost delivered ''The Gift Outright'' 20 years earlier at the College of William and Mary. It was included in his 1942 collection, ''A Witness Tree,'' and became one of his best-known poems. For Kennedy's inaugural, Frost had written another poem. ''For John F. Kennedy His Inauguration,'' was intended to praise Kennedy for ''summoning'' artists to take part in the ''august occasions of the state'' and prophesy that the new administration would be ''a next Augustan Age'' of ''poetry and power.''

But the wind was blowing and the sun was in his eyes, so Frost gave up the prefatory piece after reading a few lines and went on to ''The Gift Outright.'' Perhaps that was just as well. In comparing Kennedy to Augustus Caesar, Frost was not being entirely complimentary.

In ''The Gift Outright,'' Frost describes the history of the United States as a process of national self-realization. Our national identity, in his view, was shaped by the North American soil and climate, not by the scraps of culture we brought from Europe. We became truly American only when we stopped being English colonials and ''gave ourselves outright'' to the land we had already settled. Our declaration of independence, according to Frost, was a national ''salvation in surrender'' to a land that was, like us, ''still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,'' but ''realizing westward'' and potentially great.

''On the Pulse of Morning,'' the poem that Maya Angelou read at Bill Clinton's inaugural, was the first poem written for and delivered at a presidential inaugural ceremony. Like Frost, Ms. Angelou used the occasion to comment on our country's history. Her poem, however, speaks from an entirely different point of view. ''On the Pulse of Morning'' seems to have been meant as a reply to Frost.

Ms. Angelou reminds us that for dispossessed Native Americans, enslaved Africans and exploited European immigrants, American history was not self-realization but a record of ''wrenching pain.''

Throughout our history, the land has been despoiled and the people brutalized by ''the armed struggle for profit.'' But today, she suggests, history is beginning anew. The land calls to us with the voices of the Rock, the Tree and the River to rise from ''bruising darkness'' and come ''clad in peace.'' We, as a people, have been redeemed. Cain's ''bloody sear'' has been washed from our brow and we can again look each other in the face and say ''Very simply/With hope/ Good morning.''

There is one other poet who can claim to have written an inaugural poem. James Dickey wrote ''The Strength of Fields'' for the inauguration of his fellow Georgian, Jimmy Carter, in 1977. He did not, however, read the poem at the inaugural ceremony, but at one of the parties afterward.

Dickey approached his topic in a quite different way from the other two poets. Instead of speaking for the nation, Dickey describes the thoughts of the president-elect himself. ''The Strength of Fields'' portrays Mr. Carter walking alone at night, near his home in Plains, just before his inauguration.

He is not thinking about what kind of era his presidency will inaugurate but about his own worthiness for the job. Men are ''around him like the strength/Of fields'' but he is alone, except for God. ''Dear Lord of all the fields,'' he prays, ''What am I going to do?'' What source of power, what ''secret blooming'' will give him the strength to face ''the profound, unstoppable craving of nations for their wish?''

Mr. Carter, according to Dickey, concludes that the answer is in the simplest things, the fields themselves, the ''kindness . . . Of the renewing green.'' ''More kindness will . . . save every sleeping one/ And night-walking one/ Of us.'' And now that his life ''belongs to the world,'' the new president resolves that he will do what he can.

President Carter's inaugural occurred midway between those of Presidents Kennedy and Clinton. During the 32 years since Kennedy's inauguration, our consciousness of our national aims and identity has changed.

In 1961, Frost could speak with pride of our history as the fulfillment of our destiny. Today, Ms. Angelou looks back on our past with sorrow and urges us to have the courage not to live it again. Dickey's somber poem marks the midpoint in that change of consciousness. His anxious Carter reflects the crisis in our confidence in our destiny. Hopefully, the next four years will show that Dickey's night-walk Carter was heading for Maya Angelou's new day.

Ted Hendricks is a doctoral candidate in English at the Catholic University of America.

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