On this day in 1961, Robert Frost recited a poem he had written for the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy. Frost was 86 years old.
Robert Frost is one of the most recognized American poets of the 20th century. Although he wrote in traditional forms, his language and themes, such as doom or the solitude of humans in nature or society, were very innovative for his time. He was celebrated as an important American poet during his life, winning four Pulitzer Prizes. His poems, many of them focusing on his beloved New England, continue to be studied in classrooms more than 100 years after they were written.
Many people consider Robert Frost a traditional poet, largely because of the New England setting of many of his poems and his tendency toward simple, clear language and images. In his own significant ways, however, Frost was an innovator, known for his desire for finding “old ways of being new.”
Robert Frost was the first poet to speak at the inauguration of a president. President-elect Kennedy asked Frost to recite the poem “The Gift Outright” unless the poet planned to write a poem especially for the occasion. Frost did, in fact, write a new poem for the day entitled “Dedication.” However, when the time came to read, the wind and sun’s glare made this impossible, though Frost made a valiant attempt. Instead, he reverted to “The Gift Outright,” which he knew by heart.
Take time to examine the original poem Frost wrote for the inauguration, from the Library of Congress. The handwritten annotations are by Frost and Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, to whom Frost gave the poem.
While Robert Frost was the first poet asked to speak at a Presidential inauguration, there have been several other poets since 1961:
- In 1993 at the first Presidential inauguration of Bill Clinton, Maya Angelou recited “On the Pulse of Morning.”
- For the 1997 second Presidential inauguration of Bill Clinton, Miller Williams read “Of History and Hope.”
- In 2009 at the first Presidential inauguration of Barack Obama, Elizabeth Alexander recited “Praise Song for the Day.”
- For the 2013 second Presidential inauguration of Barack Obama, Richard Blanco read “One Today.”
- At the Presidential inauguration of Joe Biden in 2021, Amanda Gorman recited “The Hill We Climb.”
View videos of each of these recitations along with related resources here from Citizen U, a Teaching with Primary Sources Consortium member with NCTE. Learn more about teaching with primary sources using resources from the Library of Congress.
Lisa Fink is an NCTE staff member, a former elementary school teacher, and a current university instructor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She can be reached on Twitter @fink_girl.
Curious about the NCTE and Library of Congress connection? Through a grant announced by NCTE Executive Director Emily Kirkpatrick, NCTE is engaged in ongoing work with the Library of Congress and “will connect the ELA community with the Library of Congress to expand the use of primary sources in teaching.” Stay tuned for more throughout the year!
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