Poetry Made Visible: Boston Sites for Poetry Lovers
Paul Revere Park in Charlestown
by Ken Bresler | February 2018
A historic poem is part of a public art installation in a small lovely out-of-the-way park in Charlestown. Set in warm mustard-colored tiles is a poem by Robert Frost that he read at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961.
The poem, “The Gift Outright,” is broken into two panels set into low stone bases in Paul Revere Park. The stone bases define the “stage” for a performance space facing a meadow.
Paul Revere Park was built in the late 1990s to mitigate the environmental effects of the highway ramps and the Zakim Bridge, which were built over the Charles River. The park was to include public art. The planning director for the Metropolitan District Commission (MDC), which is now the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), and a design consultant were looking for some sort of text to incorporate into the public art. Karl Haglund, Project Manager for the New Charles River Basin for the MDC and later the DCR, suggested Frost’s poem. “It’s always been one of my favorites,” Haglund (who also authored Inventing the Charles River) told me.
The poem’s ceramic tiles are by Susan Gamble, whose work appears throughout the park.
The first line of the poem is “The land was ours before we were the land’s.” The last three lines – and this is important – are:
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.
A friend of Frost, Stewart Udall, suggested to John F. Kennedy that Frost read a poem at his upcoming inauguration. Udall was a congressman from Arizona and later, Kennedy’s Secretary of the Interior.
Kennedy telephoned Frost and proposed that he write a poem to mark the inauguration. Frost said no. Kennedy then proposed that he read “The Gift Outright,” and suggested changing “would” in last line to “will,” to make it more optimistic and emphatic. This was potentially a sensitive suggestion: that a poet change his work. Accounts in biographies of Frost differ whether he agreed to the change or was non-committal.
Although he initially rejected Kennedy’s proposal that he write an inauguration poem, Frost wrote one. He intended to read it as a preface to “The Gift Outright.”
At the inauguration on January 20, 1961, Frost, 87 years old, sat for an hour on a very cold day before rising to recite his poetry. Snow, which had fallen the night before, glared off the pages he grasped and he had trouble reading them. He didn’t get through the preface. He stopped and recited from memory “The Gift Outright,” which he had completed in 1935. Whatever he had told Kennedy about changing the last line of his poem, he did change it. He read: “Such as she was, such as she would become, has become, and I – and for this occasion let me change that to – what she will become.”
Because the poem is copyrighted, Frost’s recitation is not online. I drove to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Columbia Point and watched a videocassette of the inauguration on a VCR. I saw Lyndon B. Johnson, who was sworn in as Vice President that day, remove his top hat and try to use it to shade Frost’s pages from the sun. He wasn’t successful and Frost didn’t appreciate the gesture. Frost gave up trying to read his new poem. Then he read “The Gift Outright.”
It was the first time that poetry was recited at a presidential inauguration.
Ken Bresler is a writer and occasional poet in the Boston area. He is the author of Poetry Made Visible: Boston Sites for Poetry Lovers, Art Lovers & Lovers. A variation of this article appears in his book.
If you’re taking the T: The closest T station is North Station on the Green and Orange Lines.
The 92 and 93 buses, which leave from Haymarket Square, will also take you near the park. After you cross the Charles River, the park will be on your left and the next stop will be the closest. For the 92 bus, the stop will be on Main Street at Park Street. For the 93 bus, the stop will be on Chelsea Street at Warren Street.
At North Station, exit at Causeway Street. Turn right on Causeway. The easiest way to walk is to turn left on North Washington Street. (A sign directs you to Charlestown on Route 1 North.) After you cross the bridge, you’ll come to stairs on your left. Go down the stairs. Make your way around the playground to the green open oval. You’ll see an informal amphitheater space with two long mustard-colored panels set into stone. The panels contain the poem that you’re here to read.
If you have taken a bus, make your way to where Chelsea Street intersects with North Washington and Rutherford Streets. (North Washington Street turns into Rutherford Street, and vice versa.) Enter the park opposite Chelsea Street. Go down the stairs. When you get to the bottom, you’ll be behind a set of stone walls. Go on the other side. You’ll see two long mustard-colored panels set into stone. The panels contain the poem that you’re here to read.
If you’re driving: There is no parking in or next to the park. Look for parking in City Square or on Chelsea Street. Once you’ve parked, make your way to where Chelsea Street intersects with North Washington and Rutherford Streets. (North Washington Street turns into Rutherford Street, and vice versa.) Enter the park opposite Chelsea Street. Go down the stairs. When you get to the bottom, you’ll be behind a set of stone walls. Go on the other side. You’ll see two long mustard-colored panels set into stone. The panels contain the poem that you’re here to read.