John F Kennedy applauded poetry as a potent antidote to power
Opinion: President spoke at Amherst gathering to honour Frost 50 years ago today
Robert Frost: JFK recognised that poets can sometimes be quarrelsome but welcomed the contribution of those who “sail against the currents of their time”. Getty Images
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 agonising 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 today, John F Kennedy visited Amherst, a small liberal arts college in Massachusetts, and delivered a convocation address. The college was celebrating the ground-breaking 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 honour 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.
The human condition
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”.