Davis: Power of Poetry, Purpose of Prose

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(HOST) In the process of revising his book for children, "Don’t Know Much About the Presidents", author and commentator Ken Davis found himself thinking about the purpose and effectiveness of different kinds of communication.

(DAVIS) New York’s Governor Mario Cuomo once said, "You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose."

But an Inaugural Address is a bridge between the two – meant to inspire change and mark an era, perhaps even to usher in what Vermont’s own Robert Frost once called, "A golden age of poetry and power/Of which this noonday’s the beginning hour."

Frost wrote those lines in a poem called "Dedication" that he composed for the inaugural of John F. Kennedy on January 20th, 1961. The nation was eagerly awaiting the swearing-in of its handsome, young new Commander in Chief, America’s first Roman Catholic president. Signaling his taste for the arts and culture, Kennedy invited Robert Frost to be the first poet to join an inaugural ceremony.

But the weather gods had other ideas. On January 19th, snow fell so heavily in Washington that the outdoor ceremony was nearly cancelled. To salvage the occasion, a brigade of Army flamethrowers melted the piles of fresh snow, and Kennedy’s inaugural festivities went on.

Still, the weather signaled different woes for Frost. On that bright, cold day, in the glare of sun on snow, the 87-year old poet of stone walls and snowy woods could not read his longhand text. Uncertain of his new work, Frost instead recited one of his older poems, "The Gift Outright."

"The land was ours before we were the land’s…" he intoned.

Frost later gave his handwritten, unread poem to Mrs. Kennedy, who had the page framed for the new President.

This recollection of Robert Frost in that bright, shining, opening moment of the legendary "Camelot" comes to mind as the inauguration of Barack Obama looms. Like Kennedy, Obama has invited a poet, Elizabeth Alexander, to add to the occasion. But in truth, the "poetry and power" that Frost envisioned must come from the new president himself.

At his inauguration 48 years ago, Kennedy said that "The torch has been passed to a new generation." Just one day after the holiday that celebrates the greatest poet-speaker of our time, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr, Obama will take the oath and the torch will be passed to America’s first African American president.

But then will come the hard part for Obama – matching the power of his poetry with the purpose of his prose. In these times, so fraught with challenge, rarely has any task seemed so daunting.

You can find out more about Ken Davis on line here: http://www.dontknowmuch.com/ 

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