The Gift Outright

Paul Greenberg

7/4/2008 12:01:00 AM - Paul Greenberg

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.

The poet understood what the smooth speechifiers gloss over: that freedom is inseparable from pain, sacrifice, grief. That the alternative to slavery is not an open expressway to some Promised Land, but an endless trek through the Wilderness.

On this Independence Day, as on all July the Fourths, the barbaric yawp of Walt Whitman will predominate. As it should. Even dour old John Adams, for once in his life carried away by joy and hope on that first Independence Day, foresaw and even recommended the fireworks to come.

This great day, he wrote Abigail from Philadelphia, "ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward, forevermore."

So it should be and will be this crackling day. But in his always solemn vision, and even more solemn understanding of the human condition, Mr. Adams, always the realist, had to add: "You will think me transported with enthusiasm, but I am not. I am well aware of the toil, and blood, and treasure, that it will cost us to maintain this declaration, and support and defend these States."

Mr. Adams' stoic awareness comes and goes in American history. Today, some 232 years after he wrote those cautionary words to the intimate he held dearest in the world, we forget.

We forget that it is the gift outright that comes at the highest price. Robert Frost did not. In another poem, "The Black Cottage," Frost he wrote of the New England widow of a different century who understood that the war of her time had also been fought to redeem the simple words of the Declaration about all men being created equal. Hers will seem a naive belief to the sophisticates of this or any time, yet she clung to it with the obduracy of innocence:

One wasn't long in learning that she thought
Whatever else the Civil War was for
It wasn't just to keep the States together,
Nor just to free the slaves, though it did both.
She wouldn't have believed those ends enough
To have given outright for them all she gave.
Her giving somehow touched the principle
That all men are created free and equal.
And to hear her quaint phrases - so removed
From the world's view to-day of all those things. . . .
Strange how such innocence gets its own way.
I shouldn't be surprised if in this world
It were the force that would at last prevail.

What a naive, simple American faith, and yet the poet understood that its force cannot be denied, not even after 232 years. But why hold onto it in these uncertain times, when retreat is as appealing as it always is when the realization dawns that freedom comes with a price. Robert Frost's response:

. . . why abandon a belief
Merely because it ceases to be true.
Cling to it long enough, and not a doubt
It will turn true again, for so it goes.
Most of the change we think we see in life
Is due to truths being in and out of favor.

What is the Fourth of July? It's the day not only for Whitmanesque fireworks that rise and fade in a minute, but Frost's unblinking, everlasting patience. It is the day we rededicate ourselves to those truths we keep coming back to, especially when they are out of favor.