David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: When JFK Read Poetry


Not that one needs an excuse such as the imminent threat of nuclear armageddon to read poetry, but the early 1960s might have been a good time to turn to poems for comfort, insight, solace, and understanding about the disposition of human beings to threaten their own existence. It was an era in which the golden rule could’ve read: Love thy neighbor as thy self — but verify.

From the invention of nuclear weapons in the 1940s to the middle of the 1960s, the US increased its number of nuclear warheads from zero to 30,000. During the same period, the USSR grew its stockpile of nuclear warheads to nearly 10,000 (for those counting at home, the USSR would surpass the US in nuclear stockpiles during the mid-1980s, 45,000 to 25,000; today Russia has 8,500 warheads while the US has 7,700).

Notwithstanding that it would have taken only a handful of Cold War warheads to do lasting damage to the human race, the arms race was well underway by October 26, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy arrived by motorcade to help dedicate the Robert Frost Library at Amherst College in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts.

Though I did know about a Kennedy address defending the importance of the arts and knew that it came shortly before his assassination on November 22, 1963. I’m grateful to Radio Open Source host Christopher Lydon for bringing this event to Poetry Wire’s attention. Lydon, in fact, covered the dedication as a young reporter for the Boston Globe.

In paying tribute to Frost, Kennedy makes the case that despite the importance of creating “national strength” in economic and military matters, what a nation most needs is poetry in order to save “power from itself.” “When power leads men towards arrogance,” Kennedy tells a crowd of about 10,000 that day, “poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.”

JFKI can’t help but think that the language Kennedy used that day was transferrable to other speeches he gave. I mean, he could have said: “When power leads men towards arrogance, baseball reminds him of his limitations” or when “power narrows the areas of man’s concern, cooking reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence” or when “power corrupts, an afternoon of sailing cleanses.”

Nonetheless, the sentiment about poetry seems apt. If it were all Kennedy said that morning about poetry, we’d feel OK, once again, about poetry’s ability to “understand the ordeal as well as the triumph of the human spirit,” as he says Frost’s poems do.

But, it’s what happens next in the speech that I find so profound, first in Kennedy’s personal and accurate portrayal of Frost’s poetry, and later in his surprising choice of lines to quote to conclude the dedication.

Yes, Kennedy brings a generalist’s interest to his appreciation for the artist’s impulse. But better is the way he frames the poet’s concerns inside the intensity of the national drama in which he or she lives: “The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state.” If the Russians were listening that autumn day, they knew just who Kennedy meant when he said “an intrusive society and an officious state.”

Seen today in light of recent revelations of the US government’s possibly exceeding its legal authority and violating Americans’ basic privacy rights in the name of fighting terrorism by routinely collecting Americans’ telephone calls and e-mail messages, the idea that poetry can be a “champion…against an intrusive society and an officious state” is especially pertinent.

Just what would this “champion” poet look like, Kennedy asks? Such a great poet would have, “as Frost said, a lover’s quarrel with the world. In pursuing his perceptions of reality, he must often sail against the currents of his time. This is not a popular role. If Robert Frost was much honored in his lifetime, it was because a good many preferred to ignore his darker truths. Yet in retrospect, we see how the artist’s fidelity has strengthened the fibre of our national life.”

This is more than just standard, praise-the-artist boilerplate. Kennedy notes something essential about Frost’s poems. Namely, that a poet’s vision about the nature of reality lends the very art of poetry its…well, power to utter truth and trust silence. That power to address life is what makes poetry a clarifying art and not the woo-woo of style or the thud-thud of the self thinking to the self or some census-construed identity a politician can use to further his or her political agenda.

Kennedy is right, I think, when he says, toward the end of his short address, that a “nation which 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.” Same goes for its poets, yes?

Finally Kennedy concludes with these lines from Frost’s poem “Our Hold on the Planet.” The lines are meant to offer his audience hope in the shadow of nuclear threat:

Take human nature altogether since time began . . .
And it must be a little more in favor of man,
Say a fraction of one percent at the very least . . .
Our hold on this planet wouldn’t have so increased.

But, in fact Kennedy skimmed this wartime poem, and the skimming is instructive. Here is the whole poem. The quoted parts come near the end:

We asked for rain. It didn’t flash and roar.
It didn’t lose its temper at our demand
And blow a gale. It didn’t misunderstand
And give us more than our spokesman bargained for;
And just because we owned to a wish for rain,
Send us a flood and bid us be damned and drown.
It gently threw us a glittering shower down.
And when we had taken that into the roots of grain,
It threw us another and then another still,
Till the spongy soil again was natal wet.
We may doubt the just proportion of good to ill.
There is much in nature against us. But we forget;
Take nature altogether since time began,
Including human nature, in peace and war,
And it must be a little more in favor of man,
Say a fraction of one percent at the very least,
Or our number living wouldn’t be steadily more,
Our hold on the planet wouldn’t have so increased.

This is not a poem praising the goodness of a single political ideology. Frost’s idea of “hold” is not meant to celebrate political victory or favor one ideology over another in a dangerous worldwide rivalry.

No, “hold” is meant, I think, to indicate something of desperation in Frost’s mind about the human necessity to survive. Or, if not desperation, than at the very least tenacity, nerve, perseverance, true grit, even willfulness. Frost’s “hold” is akin, as Kennedy must have meant too, to a poet’s or an artist’s hold on one’s own art. It’s akin to finding a means to fashion a poem into an utterance that speaks to the massive and the miniatures of daily and national life.

Here some background on the speech is worth noting before I conclude: Ted Sorenson, Kennedy’s usual speechwriter, had written something for the dedication. But Kennedy, who knew Frost well, and who had had a mild falling out with the poet shortly before Frost died in January of that year, didn’t like the speech provided for him. With Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s help, Kennedy wrote the speech himself. His praise of Frost’s art, his understanding of Frost’s importance, his characterization of Frost’s philosophy as exemplified in “Our Hold on the Planet” — much of it a form of challenge to Kennedy’s international policies as president — suggests to me that Kennedy had a good eye for poetry’s tender valiancy.

David Biespiel is a poet, literary critic, memoirist, and contributing writer at American Poetry Review, New Republic, New York Times, Poetry, Politico, The Rumpus, and Slate, among other publications. He is the author of numerous books, most recently The Education of a Young Poet, which was selected a Best Books for Writers by Poets & Writers, A Long High Whistle, which received the 2016 Oregon Book Award for General Nonfiction, and The Book of Men and Women, which was chosen for Best Books of the Year by the Poetry Foundation and received the 2011 Oregon Book Award for Poetry. More from this author →