Last week I wrote of poetry as a unique consolation in troubled times. I did not have the space to address another use: poetry in praise of the state. I had in mind Robert Frost’s “Dedication” written for Kennedy’s inauguration. It began:

Summoning artists to participate
In the august occasions of the state
Seems something artists ought to celebrate.

I forgive Frost much but never really liked these Seuss-like lines. Their clunkiness seemed to argue against their thesis. The “Dedication” was supposed to precede a reading of “The Gift Outright,” a poem written years before, that Kennedy had asked him to read. It begins with the lines “The land was ours before we were the land’s.” It has been described as an “ode to American exceptionalism.” No Democrat president elect would choose it now. In 1961 Frost was 86 years old. As he stood on the inaugural podium the glare from the sun reflecting on the snow was too much for his eyes. He abandoned trying to read “Dedication”—which he had just written and had not had time to memorize—and instead recited “The Gift Outright” by heart.

You can see a bit of it on YouTube:

To me it is an endearing bit of Americana, with newly-inaugurated Vice-president Humphrey trying to shield the page from the sun with his hat, Frost giving it another go and faltering, and then getting on with it.

Frost had been on my mind for another reason — which would also not endear him to our new, self-appointed Lunacharskys. One of my favorite Frost poems is “America is Hard to See” honoring Christopher Columbus. I had once spent quite a bit of time preparing a book on anti-Americanism. The topic, vast enough when I began, grew vaster, as I wrote, and too fast for me to snare it. I shall save it for my retirement when I can include a crucial chapter on American anti-Americanism, now reaching its apotheosis. I had planned on calling the book “America is Hard to See,” based on this stanza:

America is hard to see

Less partial witnesses than he [Columbus]

In book on book have testified

They could not see it from outside—

Or inside either for that matter.

We know the literary chatter.

I realize the great Admiral is out of favor. I was in Baltimore over the weekend where my mother and sister live. My sister in particular is fully up to speed on the progressive canon. A Columbus statue had recently been toppled into the Baltimore harbor. My recollections were that the Great Discoverer was not a perfect man, but neither was he a Cortés or Pizarro. “Well,” my sister said. “He deliberately infected the island of Hispaniola in order to kill the natives.” I thought this rather ingenious. Here we are five hundred years later, with all our science, still trying to figure out a rather pesky virus, but Columbus was waging biological warfare four centuries before viruses were discovered. More than a mariner!

Frost was perhaps more than a poet. A more relevant stanza for our times is this:

But all he did was spread the room

Of our enacting out the doom

Of being in each other’s way,

And so put off the weary day

When we would have to put our mind

On how to crowd but still be kind.

Now that weary day is here. And we are only allowed to crowd in order to be unkind. Frost could not have seen that coming any more than he could see his own words on the inaugural stage.

I returned home to New York and immediately pulled from my bookshelf Robert Royal’s 1492 and All That, the great scholar’s attempt to address the “political manipulations of history” around the 1992 quincentennial celebrations of Columbus’ first voyage. It was a reminder that very little is new:

“it is far more common in 1992 to criticize him for the legacy of slavery, conquest, and imperialism, as well as for the cultural arrogance, male domination, militarism, and environmental insensitivities alleged to make up the core of the modern American life.”

But Royal made a rather perceptive point. These radical critics of Columbus, along with his defenders, are creatures of the American myth that we have escaped from, in the words of David Noble, “the terror of historical change.” By throwing Columbus into the harbor, and destroying other statues, and creating “narratives” to replace documented history — or seeking to ban the teaching of history outright — or burning inconvenient books, the radicals are acting out this history-less myth. One imagines Columbus at the bottom of the harbor, stone eyes serenely staring up at the sky, past the watery keels and hulls of ships, thinking: and yet, if it were not for me…

They say his flagship’s unlaid ghost

Still probes and dents our rocky coast.


Photo by krnlpanik

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