But all the fun's in how you say a thing.
--Robert Frost, "The Mountain."
The most famous poetry reading in American history occurred on Friday January 20, 1961. On that bright and chilly morning, Robert Frost stood before a vast crowd assembled at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., to recite "The Gift Outright" as part of John F. Kennedy's inauguration ceremony. Frost had planned to say two poems that morning. The first, "Dedication" (subsequently titled "For John F. Kennedy His Inauguration"), Frost couldn't complete because the sharp sun blinded his failing eyes, despite his having had the poem typed on an oversized-character typewriter once used by President Eisenhower. After fumbling through the first few lines of "Dedication" Frost abandoned it altogether, telling the crowd, to their roaring approval, that it was merely "a preface to the poem I can say to you without seeing it" (qtd. in Thompson, Later Years 281). He then intoned "The Gift Outright" in a voice that Frost's biographer Lawrance Thompson calls "firm and unfaltering" and a reporter for the Washington Post termed "natural" (qtd. in Thompson 282), though he dramatically revised the poem's final line, "Such as she was, such as she would become." Thompson describes the scene as Frost reached the end of his poem:
Here he paused, and in slow, accentuated tones, gave his altered
version of the last line: "Such as she was, such as she would become,
has become, and I--and for this occasion let me change that to--what
she will become." Without pausing, he continued to speak ... : "and
this poem--what I was leading up to--was a dedication of the poem to
the President-elect Mr. John Finley."
In fact, this was a prosy improvisation on a previously agreed-upon revision to just one word in the final line. At Kennedy's request, Frost had allowed a substitution ("if only for a day," Kennedy had said) of "would" to "will"--the final words would read "such as she will become"--which the President thought "more positive-sounding" (278). And apparently, no one caught Frost's embarrassing blunder. John Huston Finley Jr., was a Harvard professor of Classics; it appears Frost simply confused their names. In any case, the great poet left the rostrum to applause and Kennedy was administered his oath of office.
This uncharacteristically brief live poetry reading reveals that, for Frost, a poem is not a steady thing. It can be revised for an occasion. (It can also be the site of unadulterated error, something different from revision.) One implication of this is that Frost's poems can be understood in dramatically different ways according to their spoken contexts. As Marit MacArthur points out, following the Kennedy reading "The Gift Outright" has been interpreted as endorsing "triumphant nationalism" and "a celebration of colonialism" (63). It's true that this reading corresponds to Frost's own gloss of the poem around this time as being "about the Revolutionary War," as he put it in a November 29, 1960 talk at Dartmouth College (Speaking on Campus 137). Pushing this reading even further, he says the poem depicts a "conflict of good and good not good and bad. ... The British colonial system was a good thing, but we got going ourselves." Some have followed Frost's self-analysis. Reading the poem as an apology for colonialism, Tyler Hoffman wonders at Frost's "blindness" to "the abuses and systematic oppression of native peoples" and quotes the Irish writer Tom Paulin, who critiques the poem's claim to Manifest Destiny and what Hoffman refers to as "Frost's dismissal of American Indian culture" (207). Yet without the framing device of a presidential inauguration to guide such an interpretation (indeed, Hoffman situates the poem in just that context), MacArthur shows through close reading of Frost's notebooks, letters, and the poem's ambiguous final lines that "The Gift Outright" was originally a response to New Deal policies (it was written in 1935 though not published until 1942), which Frost notoriously despised, and the "careless attitude of the American people toward the American landscape" (67), and native populations. …