Kennedy sent the invitation to Frost via telegram and Frost's reply was by the same means the following day. It read:
IF YOU CAN BEAR AT YOUR AGE THE HONOR OF BEING MADE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES, I OUGHT TO BE ABLE AT MY AGE TO BEAR THE HONOR OF TAKING SOME PART IN YOUR INAUGURATION. I MAY NOT BE EQUAL TO IT BUT I CAN ACCEPT IT FOR MY CAUSE—THE ARTS, POETRY, NOW FOR THE FIRST TIME TAKEN INTO THE AFFAIRS OF STATESMEN.
Kennedy asked if Frost planned to recite a new poem. If not, could he recite "The Gift Outright," a poem Frost has called "a history of the United States in a dozen [actually, sixteen] lines of blank verse." Kennedy also requested changing the phrase in the last line to "such as she will become" from "such as she would become." Frost agreed.
The original last line, which Frost claims to have written in the middle of the Great Depression, was first published in the spring 1942 issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review and read, "Such as she was, such as she might become." It seemed appropriate that Frost agreed to further change the poem to reflect the optimism surrounding the new Presidency.
As inauguration day approached, however, Frost surprised himself by composing a new poem, "Dedication" (later re-titled "For John F. Kennedy His Inauguration"), which he planned to read as a preface to the poem Kennedy requested.
But on the drive to the Capitol on January 20, 1961, Frost worried that the piece, typed on one of the hotel typewriters the night before, was difficult to read even in good light.
When he stood to recite the poem, the wind and the bright reflection of sunlight off new fallen snow made the reading the poem impossible. He was able, however, to recite "The Gift Outright" from memory.
Read the text of both poems here.
Though Frost was somewhat embarrassed by his faltering, it made for a memorable and dramatic moment. The Washington Post reported that Frost "stole the hearts of the Inaugural crowd," somewhat as Kennedy had jokingly predicted.
Before leaving, Frost called on the new President and First Lady at the White House to receive Kennedy's thanks for participating in the event. He presented Kennedy with a manuscript copy of the "Dedication" poem, on which he wrote: "Amended copy. And now let us mend our ways." He also gave the President the advice: "Be more Irish than Harvard. Poetry and power is the formula for another Augustan Age. Don't be afraid of power."
At the foot of the typed thank-you letter Kennedy sent, he wrote, "It's poetry and power all the way!"
Fast forward 52 years to the inauguration of President Barrack Obama today. I was touched by the beauty and simplicity of Richard Blanco's innaugural poem. I hope you enjoyed it, too (or will read it below if you did not hear it).
One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,
peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces
of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth
across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies.
One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story
told by our silent gestures moving behind windows.
My face, your face, millions of faces in morning's mirrors,
each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper—
bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives—
to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem.
All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
the "I have a dream" we keep dreaming,
or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won't explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light
breathing color into stained glass windows,
life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth
onto the steps of our museums and park benches
as mothers watch children slide into the day.
One ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk
of corn, every head of wheat sown by sweat
and hands, hands gleaning coal or planting windmills
in deserts and hilltops that keep us warm, hands
digging trenches, routing pipes and cables, hands
as worn as my father's cutting sugarcane
so my brother and I could have books and shoes.
The dust of farms and deserts, cities and plains
mingled by one wind—our breath. Breathe. Hear it
through the day's gorgeous din of honking cabs,
buses launching down avenues, the symphony
of footsteps, guitars, and screeching subways,
the unexpected song bird on your clothes line.
Hear: squeaky playground swings, trains whistling,
or whispers across café tables, Hear: the doors we open
for each other all day, saying: hello, shalom,
buon giorno, howdy, namaste, or buenos días
in the language my mother taught me—in every language
spoken into one wind carrying our lives
without prejudice, as these words break from my lips.
One sky: since the Appalachians and Sierras claimed
their majesty, and the Mississippi and Colorado worked
their way to the sea. Thank the work of our hands:
weaving steel into bridges, finishing one more report
for the boss on time, stitching another wound
or uniform, the first brush stroke on a portrait,
or the last floor on the Freedom Tower
jutting into a sky that yields to our resilience.
One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes
tired from work: some days guessing at the weather
of our lives, some days giving thanks for a love
that loves you back, sometimes praising a mother
who knew how to give, or forgiving a father
who couldn't give what you wanted.
We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always—home,
always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country—all of us—
facing the stars
hope—a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it—together.