Peevish Pen

Ruminations on reading, writing, rural living, retirement, aging—and sometimes cats. And maybe a border collie or other critters.

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Location: Rural Virginia, United States

I'm an elderly retired teacher who writes. Among my books are Ferradiddledumday (Appalachian version of the Rumpelstiltskin story), Stuck (middle grade paranormal novel), Patches on the Same Quilt (novel set in Franklin County, VA), Them That Go (an Appalachian novel), Miracle of the Concrete Jesus & Other Stories, and several Kindle ebooks.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

January 20, 1961

I remember what I was doing on this morning in 1961.

I was a sophomore at William Fleming High School—the old Fleming that faced Williamson Road, the old Fleming that eight months later became James Breckinridge Junior High and was eventually remodeled/rebuilt to become Breckinridge Middle School.

On the morning of January 20, 1961, my classmates and I were herded upstairs to Mrs. Ruth Painter’s biology room to watch John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. Other classes had already gotten the chairs, so some of us had to sit on the long black lab tables to watch the live telecast on a small black and white TV.

Did we know we were watching history in the making? I think our teachers had told us that we were. We heard JFK say “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country” I doubt any of us realized then how famous these words would later become.

After JFK had finished his speech, a famous poet—Robert Frost—came forth to read a poem he’d written for the occasion. We’d heard of Robert Frost. His poems were in our literature book. Somehow the old man didn’t look like we expected a famous poet to look. He was—well, old.

He had a bit of trouble reading. The wind blew and we could see the page shake in his hand. Plus the sun was in his eyes. He gave up trying to read and recited from memory, “The Gift Outright.”

The land was ours before we were the land's.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England's, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.

Those of us stuffed into the biology room thought that was the poem that was typed on the paper. We were impressed that he could recite it.

But “The Gift Outright” wasn’t what was typed on the paper. Frost had written a special poem for the inauguration—this poem:

For John F. Kennedy
His Inauguration

Summoning artists to participate
In the august occasions of the state
Seems something artists ought to celebrate.
Today is for my cause a day of days.
And his be poetry's old-fashioned praise
Who was the first to think of such a thing.
This verse that in acknowledgement I bring
Goes back to the beginning of the end
Of what had been for centuries the trend;
A turning point in modern history.
Colonial had been the thing to be
As long as the great issue was to see
What country'd be the one to dominate
By character, by tongue, by native trait,
The new world Christopher Columbus found.
The French, the Spanish, and the Dutch were downed
And counted out. Heroic deeds were done.
Elizabeth the First and England won.
Now came on a new order of the ages
That in the Latin of our founding sages
(Is it not written on the dollar bill
We carry in our purse and pocket still?)
God nodded His approval of as good.
So much those heroes knew and understood--
I mean the great four, Washington,
John Adams, Jefferson, and Madison--
So much they knew as consecrated seers
They must have seen ahead what now appears:
They would bring empires down about our ears
And by example of our Declaration
Make everybody want to be a nation.
And this is no aristocratic joke
At the expense of negligible folk.
We see how seriously the races swarm
In their attempts at sovereignty and form.
They are our wards we think to some extent
For the time being and with their consent,
To teach them how Democracy is meant.
"New order of the ages" did we say?
If it looks none too orderly today,
'Tis a confusion it was ours to start
So in it have to take courageous part.
No one of honest feeling would approve
A ruler who pretended not to love
A turbulence he had the better of.
Everyone knows the flowry of the twain
Who gave America the aeroplane
To ride the whirlwind and the hurricane.
Some poor fool has been saying in his heart
Glory is out of date in life and art.
Our venture in revolution and outlawry
Has justified itself in freedom's story
Right down to now in glory upon glory.
Come fresh from an election like the last,
The greatest vote a people ever cast,
So close yet sure to be abided by,
It is no miracle our mood is high.
Courage is in the air in bracing whiffs
Better than all the stalemate an's and ifs.
There was the book of profile tales declaring
For the emboldened politicians daring
To break with followers when in the wrong,
A healthy independence of the throng,
A democratic form of right divine
To rule first answerable to high design.
There is a call to life a little sterner,
And braver for the earner, learner, yearner.
Less criticism of the field and court
And more preoccupation with the sport.
It makes the prophet in us all presage
The glory of a next Augustan age
Of a power leading from its strength and pride,
Of young ambition eager to be tried,
Firm in our free beliefs without dismay,
In any game the nations want to play.
A golden age of poetry and power
Of which this noonday's the beginning hour.

Better late than never.


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Blogger Amy Tate said...

I had to memorize Robert Frost's poem, Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening, last semester. I'm sure glad it wasn't this one! LOL

10:48 AM  

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