If this nation - now a global power despite itself - had room for only one poet, surely it would be the irrepressible Walt Whitman, he who made "barbaric yawp" a poetic term. There was no part of America, or life, or death, that he shrunk from. He heard America singing its limitless songs and could not help echoing them all. In his uncontainable zest for all things American, in his infallible love and hopeless, hapless enthusiasm, Walt Whitman is the fireworks show of American poets, which may be why he should be reserved for moments of high drama and shocking tragedy. Untamed and untamable, he shouted his poems over the rooftops of the world, announcing that he - and America - had arrived. To stay.
Whitman would begin his great work ("Leaves of Grass," originally published in 1855) with the very word America. That was the poem/epic/outburst in which he would announce his great discovery: "The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem."
But a great nation has room for many poets and poets to come. Not just the splendiferous versifiers and star-spangled drumbeaters, but the piquant solitude of an Emily Dickinson. As for those times that try men's souls, when the sunshine patriots have fled, when endurance is all and perseverance the only duty, when gray winter sets in with no break in the clouds, as it did at Valley Forge and Bastogne, there is a poet for those somber seasons, too.
When hope is more duty than sensation, when a New England iron must enter the national soul or America will find herself incomplete and unarmed, it is time to re-read Robert Frost.
By nature Mr. Frost was a poet, not a poet laureate. But when called on to do his ceremonial bit, he would deliver a model of an inaugural poem, the one all others will inevitably be compared to, and be judged by how well they come up to it, for there may never be its equal.
"The Gift Outright," the poet would entitle his inaugural offering to John F. Kennedy and the nation on that blustery January day when a nation riding high needed to be reminded whence it came and the price - the awful price! - to be paid for such a gift. For from those to whom much is given, much will be expected.
It was left to Robert Frost on that heady occasion to speak of what comes with gifts outright -the deed of gift was many deeds of war. He saw things unblinkered, Mr. Frost did, even at that heady moment before an inaugural ball, as another Camelot is ushered in by every new administration, even if only for a gaudy moment.
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