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Poetry Foundation


Good politics is a game of clear, unambiguous messages; good poetry, less so. How to make poetry political, then? Take “The Gift Outright,” by Robert Frost, a poem about American history and politics that occupies its own space within them. First published in 1942, the poem is most famous for its appearance at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961. Frost was the first American poet to read at a presidential swearing-in ceremony, and his inclusion seemed to signal new prestige for poetry itself. Kennedy later called Frost’s work “the deepest source of our national strength.” But Frost didn’t trust “The Gift Outright” to demonstrate that strength. He wrote another—bad—poem to make sure his audience got the point. The couplet-rich “For John F. Kennedy’s Inauguration” bristles with certainty about the American past: “Our venture in revolution and outlawry / Has justified itself in freedom’s story / Right down to now in glory upon glory.” It’s also pretty confident about the American future—“a golden age of poetry and power / Of which this noonday’s the beginning hour.” Together, the assertions of this “preliminary history” were meant to set up “The Gift Outright.”


This published version is made available on Dickinson Scholar with the permission of the publisher. For more information on the published version, visit The Poetry Foundation's Website.