‘The Gift Outright’

I see that President-elect Barack Obama has selected Yale professor Elizabeth Alexander to write and deliver a special inauguration poem.

As a professor of black history, she will, no doubt, attempt to capture the historic moment of America electing a black man to lead her.

But, with all due respect to the talents of Ms. Alexander and the gravity of the historic moment, it reminded me of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration poem. (Kennedy was the first president to honor a poet is such a way.)

I was a very young grade-schooler on Jan. 20, 1961, so I don’t mean for anyone to think I heard it and was moved by it. I read it and was moved by it decades later. You see, as I’ve gotten older (and I thank God for that blessing) I find myself reading less nonfiction and more fiction sprinkled with an increasing dose of poetry.

The poem recited for Kennedy was entitled "The Gift Outright". And it went:

        "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."

Before reading aloud "The Gift Outright"  Kennedy’s poet read a preamble in rhyme, part of which went:

        "Come fresh from an election like the last
        The greatest vote a people ever cast,
        So close yet sure to be abided by,
        It is no miracle our mood is high.
        Courage is in the air in bracing whiffs
        Better than all the stalemate an’s and ifs.
        There was the book of profile tales declaring
        For the emboldened politicians daring
        To break with followers when in the wrong,
        A healthy independence of the throng,
        A democratic form of right divine
        To rule first answerable to high design.

And who was this first poet to create and recite a poem on an American inauguration day?

Robert Frost.

I wish Obama and Ms. Alexander all the best in following in those footsteps.

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