Bob Perelman: On "The Gift Outright"

There was the very effective moment of performance when Frost gave up on the physical and intellectual distances involved in reading off a page and gazed out at the nation and recited, directly from his body as it were, "The Gift Outright," a poem which also insisted on a mystic connection between body and world: "The land was ours before we were the land's."

These simple words are eminently tricky: Frost is celebrating manifest destiny, but history is kept in decidedly soft focuses. . . .

After this beginning, political and historic specifics fade into even more elemental arrangements. Questions of who, at different times, lived on the land and named it are sidestepped. Jerome McGann notes this evasion: the Native American name Massachusetts "reminds us that this supremely Anglo-American poem cannot escape or erase a history that stands beyond its white myth of Manifest Destiny"; Massachusetts reveals Virginia as a "lying, European word." There are no more proper names after the three mentioned above; the rhetoric subsides into general considerations of ownership. The land becomes a woman, making us a corporate male that needs to make her ours; and the passage of historical time gives way to the drama of sexualized geopolitical possession with only a before and an after. Strength is crucially at issue in this Oedipal question, but it masked by a rhetoric of religious self-sacrifice:

Something we were withholding made us weak Until we found out that it was ourselves We were withholding ... . . .[we] found salvation in surrender. Such as we were we gave ourselves outright

"Giving ourselves" can be understood innocently as knowing a place well, clearing forests and cultivating farms. The land that is rhetorically the recipient of our gift and in reality the object of our possession is kept quite general and thus, beyond the poem, has room for many adherents from John Wayne in Red River to current ecological sensibilities expressed by poets such as Wendell Berry.

But the next lines reveal the limitations of the capacious optimism of the poem:

        we gave ourselves outright (The deed of gift was many deeds of war) To the land vaguely realizing westward.

The play on "deed of gift" / "deeds of war" does not exclude any war from the single act of giving ourselves to and taking possession of America; but the fact that war is the crucial act does exclude women from the large "we" the poem invokes. The mention of war only in parentheses and the cloudy uplift of the language keep particulars at bay; but "westward," even if it's qualified by "vaguely realizing," is still specific enough to implicate the Indian wars. If the 1942 publication date of the poem is kept in mind, "westward" stretches to--or at least gestures toward--the Pacific Theater of the Second World War.

If the date of the inaugural recitation is kept in mind, then the meaning of the poem can stretch still further to foreshadow the Vietnam War. Clearly, such a reference is foreign to the poem as a specific act of writing that took place in 1942, but the poem's own prophetic-colloquial invocation of manifest destiny invites such expansion. Such vague but compelling terms as "us" and "land" were central to the rhetoric under which the war was conducted, as "we" "fought for freedom," wherever it was deemed necessary by the war managers, trying to win "hearts and minds": in this context "vaguely realizing westward" points directly at South Vietnam. Of course, Robert Frost was not Robert McNamara or General Westmoreland. As a political act, his recitation was a minor ornament. But in terms of the explicit or subterranean political allegiances of poetry, Frost's position--lone sage facing and possessing the landscape for the nation--is an affirmation of the American status quo that is difficult for poets to ignore.

From The Marginalization of Poetry: Language Writing and Literary History. Copyright © 1996 by Princeton University Press.

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Criticism Overview
Title Bob Perelman: On "The Gift Outright" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Bob Perelman Criticism Target Robert Frost
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 22 Mar 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Marginalization of Poetry: Language Writing and Literary History
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