October 27, 2013

JFK on poetry and power: a cub reporter’s account

JFK on poetry and power: a cub reporter’s account

On this Indian Summer weekend 50 years ago, President John F. Kennedy delivered a memorable reflection on poetry, power and the American promise. JFK’s part in dedicating the Robert Frost Library at Amherst College turned out to be his last public performance in Massachusetts. At the Boston Globe I was a cub reporter just a year out of Yale when I got my first presidential assignment.
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Launches New Library

Kennedy at Amherst Honors Poet Frost

By CHRISTOPHER LYDON

AMHERST—President Kennedy paid tribute here Saturday to the late Robert Frost and his work, a contribution, he said, “not to our size, but to our spirit, not to our political beliefs, but to our insight, not to our self-esteem, but to our self-comprehension.”

For the President, who received an honorary doctor of laws degree from Amherst, and took part in the groundbreaking ceremony for the college’s new $3.5 million Robert Frost Library, it was an unusual day of departure from the problems of politics and policy.

“This day devoted to the memory of Robert Frost,” he told the special degree convocation, “offers an opportunity for reflection which is prized by politicians, as well as by others.”

Main themes of his speech were the role of art in the life of the nation and the redeeming influence of poetry on power.

“Our national strength matters,” he told his audience of 2700 In Amherst’s Indoor Athletic Field and hundreds more who watched him from other buildings over closed-circuit : television, “but the spirit which Informs and control sour strength matters just as much.”

“This was the special significance of Robert Frost. He brought an unsparing instinct for reality to bear on the platitudes and pieties of society.”

Mr. Kennedy, who was a close friend of Frost in the last few years o! the poet’s life, accepted Frost’s proclaimed
vision of “poetry as a means of saving power from itself.”

“When power leads man towards arrogance,” Mr. Kennedy said, “poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and the diversity of his existence, “When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic truths, which must serve as touchstones of our judgment.”

Mr. Kennedy made it clear later in the morning’s ceremonies that he saw in Frost’s poetry, not an antithesis to power, but a complement.

In his remarks at the groundbreaking, the President regaled the thousands who stood around him, with recollections about Frost’s “hard-boiled” approach to life and his hopes for the United States.

“He once said that America is the country you leave only when you want to go out and lick another country. He was not particularly belligerent in his relations, his human relations, but felt very strongly that the United States should be a country of power and force, and use that power and force wisely.”

frost-smThe President added with a broad grin, “He once said to me not to let the Harvard in me get to be too important. So we have followed that advice.”

Archibald MacLeish, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet joined President Kennedy in receiving an honorary doctor of laws and. in honoring Frost.

MacLeish spoke on the mystery of Frost’s theme, and the legacy of the poet, which goes beyond the quantity of his reputation and the number of people who knew his name or recognized him on the street.

MacLeish said that only “months after his death, the ‘public image,’ as the industry would call it, has begun to change like the elms in Autumn, leaving enormous branches black and clean against the sky.”

Borrowing a line from Amherst’s poetess, Emily Dickinson, MacLeish called Frost “too intrinsic for renown—intrinsic for renown to touch. , Something in the fame resists the fame, as burning maple logs—rock maple anyway—resist the blaze.”

When Frost talked of what honor meant to him, he spoke of leaving behind him: “a few poems it would be hard to get rid of.”

“Poems are speaking voices,” MacLeish explained. “A poem that ls hard to get rid of is a voice that is hard to get rid of. And a voice that Is hard to get rid of, is a man.

“What Frost wanted for himself in the midst of all that praise was what Keats had wanted for himself in the midst of no praise at all: To be among the English poets at his death—the poets of the English tongue.”

He added later: “To be among the English poets is to BE—to go on being. Frost wanted to go on being. And he has.”

A large part of President Kennedy’s remarks at Amherst were devoted to the responsibility of private colleges to the country.

His invitation to speak at Amherst Saturday had come from the chairman of Amherst’s Board of Trustees, John J. McCloy.

“When the chairman of our Disarmament Agency Committee,” the President said, “who has labored so long and hard—Governor Stevenson’s assistant during the very difficult days at the United Nations during the Cuban crisis, a public servant of so many years-asks oil invites the President of the United States, there is only one response. So I am glad to be here.”

Citing Amherst’s long tradition of public service, Kennedy reminded his audience, “privilege is here, and with
privilege goes responsibility.

“There is inherited wealth in this country and also inherited poverty,” Mr. Kennedy stated, “and unless the graduates of this college and other colleges like it who are given a running start in life—unless they are willing to put back into our society those talents, the broad sympathy the understanding, the compassion—unless they are willing to put those qualities back into the service of the Great Republic, then obviously the presuppositions on which our democracy is based are bound to be fallible.”

By the time the President and the officers of the college went outside for the groundbreaking, a warm sun bathed the campus of Ivy dressed red brick, where Robert Frost taught and lecture off and on from 1917 until his death.

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  • Robert Zucchi

    The old poet, ripe with age and honors, at the inaugural lectern. The new president seated nearby, bodying forth youth and promise. It’s attractive to imagine JFK as a patron of literature, and not merely out of official duty or noblesse oblige. It’s pleasing to think of him as having affinity with the culture and terroir of New England, and with Robert Frost, exegete of that culture to the world.

    Adam Gopnik, writing in the November 4 “The New Yorker” in advance of the semicentennial of JFK’s death, observes of the elegies and requiems that followed the assassination that they “marked the last time the highbrow reaches of the American imagination were complicit in the dignity of the presidency.” (Weeell, there is the anecdote about Jimmy Carter down on all fours, rearranging the White House carpets around the piano before Horowitz’s recital.)

  • Potter

    Thank you for digging that out! You were a good writer, right out of the gate. You continue to elevate the conversation all these years.

    It’s a very good time to remember JFK, to read his quotes, and too, to read Robert Frost.