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The Poet and the President

Americans will soon experience a painful set of national memories. In less than a month our calendars will mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Unlike other deaths of prominent people, this one came too suddenly, too soon and too senselessly to be anything other than a shock. Most Americans who were alive at the time remember exactly where they were when they heard the news. They can easily bring back to mind the black-and-white television images that were seen and shared by millions over an anxious and agonizing November weekend.

America and the world will, of necessity, revisit those memories on the forthcoming assassination anniversary. But perhaps it is also worthwhile to celebrate another anniversary, one that marks an earlier, more hopeful and more reflective moment in the Kennedy presidency.

Fifty years ago, on Oct. 26, 1963, John F. Kennedy visited Amherst, a small liberal arts college in Massachusetts, and delivered a convocation address. The college was celebrating the groundbreaking for a new library to be named for Robert Frost, a former teacher of English at the college and Kennedy’s invited poet at the 1961 inaugural ceremonies. In 1961, the then 86-year-old Frost wrote a new poem for the occasion, but when a bright sun and blustery January winds made it impossible for him to read from the papers on the podium, the poet improvised and recited “The Gift Outright” from memory. The inaugural crowd applauded wildly.

In October of 1963, the tables were turned, and the president was the guest speaker invited to say something in honor of the poet who had helped the nation celebrate the first day of his presidency. Kennedy and his speechwriters chose to frame the Amherst remarks in a broad fashion. The president could easily have just talked about Frost, a poet who had many connections to his New England home. Frost had died earlier in the year and Kennedy could have delivered a simple eulogy. He did that, but he also aimed for something higher. In his remarks, the president talked about poetry and power and about the role of the artist in the life of the nation.

Kennedy quoted the last line of one of Frost’s poems (and the epitaph on his gravestone) — “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world” — and reminded his listeners that Frost sometimes delivered dark observations about the human condition and could be a critic of the world around him. The president understood that artists can be quarrelsome, sometimes unpopular and often isolated, but he welcomed the messages of those who “sail against the currents of their time.”

He described poetry as an antidote to power:

“When power leads man to arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of this existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.”

Genuine art, Kennedy said, “does not belong to the spheres of polemics and ideology.” It is “not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.” And truth often reminds us “that our nation falls short of its highest potential.”

Kennedy warned that a country that “disdains the mission of art invites the fate of Robert Frost’s hired man, the fate of having ‘nothing to look backward to with pride, and nothing to look forward to with hope.’” And then the president looked forward to his own hopes: “a future in which our country will match its military strength with our moral restraint, its wealth with our wisdom, its power with our purpose.”

Part of the regret that will accompany the remembrances of Kennedy’s death next month will be the thought that we lost a leader who was, at least on some occasions, elegant and eloquent. We once had a president who could applaud the artists who were his critics and encourage them to pursue their truth even if it came at the expense of those in his profession. American presidents don’t give speeches like the one Kennedy delivered at Amherst College all that often, but when they do, they demonstrate the best that can be done with the bully pulpit they temporarily possess.

For Americans, today’s 50th anniversary is one they can recall with some pride as a rare example of presidential speech at its best.

Here in Ireland, people might choose to remember something else. When Robert Frost gave John F. Kennedy a copy of the new poem he had been unable to read at the inauguration ceremonies, he also gave the new president some famous advice: “Be more Irish than Harvard.” It is not fully known what Kennedy thought of that advice, but he often quoted and always admired the poet who gave it.

This op-ed was published by the Irish Times on Saturday October 26, 2013 under the title “John F. Kennedy applauded poetry as a potent antidote to power”.

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