Pre-inaugural hoopla flashback! Robert Frost stumbles then recovers grandly at JFK '61.

For his 1961 inauguration, JFK invited Robert Frost to recite his 1942 poem "The Gift Outright." Ahead of the ceremony Frost decided to compose 70-plus new lines to read as a preface to his 16-line "Gift."

Came the sunny cold day, however, and the 86-year-old Frost could not make out the new words of on the sheet of paper he held. After some fumbling as well ineffective assistance from LBJ, among others, Frost recovered and grandly recited the "Gift" from memory. 

William Pritchard later wrote: 

Putting behind him the stumbling uncertainties of voice and tone which characterized his attempt to deliver the new poem, he fell back on an old one he knew perfectly, and in the most splendidly commanding of voices read "The Gift Outright" impeccably: "The land was ours before we were the land's."

His performance thus attained a dramatic, even a heroic quality, which it would otherwise have lacked if things had gone off perfectly. The imperfect version had more of "life" in it: in the midst of flattery and display, the sound of sense suddenly and movingly made itself felt.

Derek Wolcott had a more caustic response:

The choice of poem was not visionary so much as defensive. A Navajo hymn might have been more appropriate: the the "ours" and the "we" of Frost were not as ample and multihued as Whitman's tapestry, but something as tight and regional as a Grandma Moses painting, a Currier and Ives print, strictly New England in black and white.

By then as much an emblem of the republic as any rubicund senator with his flying white hair, an endangered species like a rare owl, there was the old poet who, between managing the fluttering white hair and the fluttering white paper, had to recite what sounded more like an elegy than a benediction. "The land was ours before we were the land's" could have had no other name, not only because he was then in his old age, but because all his spirit and career, like Thomas Hardy's, lurched toward a wintry wisdom. 

The Pritchard and Wolcott excerpts come from a collection of responses to Frost's poem and performance: 

The full texts of the two poems:

Read more about Frost's invitation to participate and events involving him on inaurguation day: