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Poetry Radio Project

Our First Inaugural Poet

Larissa Anderson

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Poet Linda Pastan
(Margaretta K. Mitchell)
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Poetry Foundation
(Poetry Foundation)
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A lot of people are going to watch Barack Obama being sworn in as the country's next president. They'll squeeze into D.C. by the millions for the ceremony, and more will be watching on TV, including poet Linda Pastan. She'll see the whole thing sitting on her couch, just like she did almost 50 years ago when she curled up to watch John F. Kennedy's Inauguration.

Linda Pastan: I was a young mother with children of two and four, and so there was no way that I could get downtown for Kennedy's Inauguration, but I was pinned to the television that whole day. The children running around in the background were unable to even distract me. We were so excited to have this young, vibrant new president.

For me, the most vivid part of the Inauguration was not the swearing in, it was watching Robert Frost. Watching that very old man with the wind just blowing the paper out of his hands and him stumbling up there, it was excruciating. When I watched Frost stumbling over his words in that crowd in front of the whole world, he couldn't get his glasses on properly - this may be wrong, it's how I remember it however - and to see someone who you've admired and respected and revered for your whole life, it's a very terrifying and sad thing.

Finally I think the paper just either blew out of his hands or in the wind with his hair in his face he couldn't read, and what he did was to recite one of his best poems.

"The Gift Outright" is a poem that I had studied and known for many years and it was so appropriate to an inauguration because it was a poem about a kind of patriotism. We belong to the country, we have to, even in the moments when we despair about the way it's behaving, it's still - we belong to it.

I wrote my poem, "Remembering Frost on Kennedy's Inauguration" because somebody asked me to write a poem about Frost and what came to me immediately was that memory of him at the inauguration.
"Remembering Frost at Kennedy's Inauguration"

Even the flags seemed frozen

to their poles, and the men

stamping their well-shod feet
resembled an army of overcoats.

But we were young and fueled

by hope, our ardor burned away

the cold. We were the president's,
and briefly, the president would be ours.

The old poet stumbled

over his own indelible words,
his breath a wreath around his face:
a kind of prophesy

Copyright 2006 by Linda Pastan. Reprinted from "Queen of a Rainy Country" with permission from W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, NY.


Even though I wasn't out in the cold, the cold almost came out of the television set. Everyone's breath was a cloud around their face, not just Frost's, and when you're speaking and your breath comes out, it is kind of like a wreath around your face, and I immediately thought of a funeral wreath. Frost would not live very much longer after that year. When I say that "briefly the president would be ours," it's because it was such a short time that we had him; we didn't know then that it was going to be so brief.

More stories from our Poetry Radio Project series


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  • By Adam Waggoner

    From ID, 03/16/2009

    JFK did cheat on his wife. That was the only thing we had to let us know that he was a real person. Aside from all his Godly attributes and miraculous escapes from death. The thing about JFK's sins is that he was a good man with good intentions who tried and did so many good things for so many people. The amount of people he helped surely outweighed the amount he hindered. It's a good thing God is forgiving and loves his children because if the judgement call were in the hands of certain individuals nobody would be saved. I pray for the eternal happiness of the Kennedy's as they have done much MUCH more than most any of us could ever do.

    By Frank Rouse

    From Maintown, VA, 01/22/2009

    John F. Kennedy cheated on his wife. I don't see why everyone is so in love with this kind of person.

    By Frank Rouse

    From Maintown, VA, 01/22/2009

    John F. Kennedy cheated on his wife.

    By Ernie Wormwood

    From Leonardtown, MD, 01/12/2009

    I was a freshman in a Catholic high school. I watched the Inaugural with my father who has been described as the best damn Democrat in St. Mary's County. It was a big day for everyone, particularly Catholics who were happy about the newly elected Catholic president. Expelled breath in the cold was like smoke, and in fact I think there was a little electrical problem in the podium as Robert Frost strode into poetic history. To me it did not matter that he was a bit off kilter because he was genuine, and like a father and more regal than anyone, My father and I watched as if we were seeing God. It was a grand day.
    imparting words that rang in us all like bells.

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