John F. Kennedy and Poetry

Given John F. Kennedy's talent as an orator, one can safely guess that he had an ear for verse, but his remarks on poetry reveal that he may have had a deeper appreciation for the art.

Politico published an article last week remembering a speech Kennedy gave at the opening of the Robert Frost Library at Amherst College in 1963. Kennedy was likely repaying Frost for reading at his inauguration, but the President's remarks hint that he had some genuine, strong opinions about poetry. Overlooking the easy portrayal of Frost as a voice for New England, Kennedy instead celebrated the poet as a crucial voice for society's hard truths, as one whom, in Frost's words, was "acquainted with the night." He astutely offered, "If Robert Frost was much honored in his lifetime, it was because a good many preferred to ignore his darker truths."

Kennedy went on to characterize poetry, too, in an oddly specific way -- through the lens of 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."

Politico notes that Kennedy expressed a similar sentiment in a speech he gave as senator seven years prior: "If more politicians knew poetry, and more poets knew politics, I am convinced the world would be a little better place in which to live."

The two speeches hint that Kennedy thought highly of poetry's wisdom and of its ability to reset a perspective warped by power and politics. We know that, as president, he read both Frost and Byron, and that he often asked his wife to recite World War I veteran Alan Seeger's "I Have a Rendezvous With Death." Seeger's poem, which speaks of bravery and devotion to duty in the face of danger, seems particularly appropriate this week.

I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air-
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.

It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath-
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.

God knows 'twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear...
But I've a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

In closing his speech at Amherst, Kennedy defended the role of poetry, and of the arts in general, offering that a nation that disdains art has, in the words of Frost's The Death of the Hired Man, "nothing to look backward to with pride, and nothing to look forward to with hope." He added, "I look forward to a great future for America, 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." It's a viewpoint worth remembering.

You can read more about Kennedy and poetry at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum website.