John F. Kennedy Explains Why Artists & Poets Are Indispensable to American Democracy (October 26th, 1963)

The Greek word poesis did not confine itself to the literary arts. Most broadly speaking, the word meant “to make”---as in, to create anything, godlike, out of the stuff of ideas. But the English word “poetry” has always retained this grander sense, one very present for poets steeped in the classics, like Percy Shelley, who famously called poets the “unacknowledged legislators of the world” in his essay “A Defence of Poetry.” Shelley argued, “If no new poets should arise to create afresh the associations which have been thus disorganized, language will be dead to all the nobler purposes of human intercourse.”

It can feel at times, watching certain of our leaders speak, that language may be dying for “nobler purposes.” But certain poets would seek to convince us otherwise. As Walt Whitman wrote of his countrymen in an introduction to Leaves of Grass, “presidents shall not be their common referee so much as their poets shall.”




Whitman lived in a time that valued rhetorical skill in its leaders. So too did another of the country’s revered national poets, Robert Frost, who accepted the request of John F. Kennedy to serve as the first inaugural poet in 1961 with “his signature elegance of wit,” comments Maria Popova. Frost, 86 years old at the time, read his poem "The Gift Outright" from memory and offered Kennedy some full-throated advice on joining "poetry and power."

Kennedy, an “arts patron in chief,” as the L.A. Times’ Mark Swed describes him, was so moved that two years later, after the poet’s death, he delivered an eloquent eulogy for Frost at Amherst College that picked up the poet’s theme, and acknowledged the power of poetry as equal to, and perhaps surpassing, that of politics. “Our national strength matters,” he began, “but the spirit which informs and controls our strength matters just as much.” That animating spirit for Kennedy was not religion, civil or supernatural, but art. Frost’s poetry, he said, “brought an unsparing instinct for reality to bear on the platitudes and pieties of society.”

His sense of the human tragedy fortified him against self-deception and easy consolation… it is hardly an accident that Robert Frost coupled poetry and power, for he saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself. When power leads men towards 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 his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.

The tragedy of hubris and celebration of diversity, however, we can see not only in Frost, but in Shelley, Whitman, and perhaps every other great poet whose “personal vision… becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state.” Kennedy’s short speech, with great clarity and concision, makes the case for using the country’s resources to “reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft.” But just as importantly, he argues against any kind of state imposition on an artist’s vision: “If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.”

You can hear Kennedy deliver the speech in the audio above, read a full transcript in English here and in 12 other languages here. In the audience at Amherst sat poet and critic Archibald MacLeish, who, in his “Ars Poetica,” had suggested that poetry should not be stripped of its sounds and images and turned into a didactic tool. Kennedy agrees. “In free society art is not a weapon and it does not belong to the spheres of polemic and ideology.” Yet poetry is not a luxury, but a necessity if a body politic is to flourish. "The nation which disdains the mission of art,” Kennedy warned, “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.’”

Kennedy's is a point of view, perhaps, that might get under a lot of people's skin. It's worth considering, as a less optimistic critic argued at the time, whether an overabundance of didactic political statements in art may be as culturally damaging as the absence of art in politics. Or whether art like Frost's is ever "disinterested," in Kennedy's phrasing, or apolitical, or can operate independently as a check to power. Frost himself may express ambivalence in his embrace of "human tragedy." But in his doubt he fulfills the poet's role, entering into the kind of critical dialectic Kennedy claims for poetry and democracy.

Related Content:

Listen to Robert Frost Read ‘The Gift Outright,’ the Poem He Recited from Memory at JFK’s Inauguration

New Film Project Features Citizens of Alabama Reading Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” a Poetic Embodiment of Democratic Ideals

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Inspiration from Charles Bukowski: You Might Be Old, Your Life May Be “Crappy,” But You Can Still Make Good Art

Now more than ever, there’s tremendous pressure to make it big while you’re young.

Pity the 31-year-old who fails to make it onto a 30-under-30 list…

The soon-to-graduate high schooler passed over for YouTube stardom…

The great hordes who creep into middle age without so much as a TED Talk to their names…

Social media definitely magnifies the sensation that an unacceptable number of our peers have been granted first-class cabins aboard a ship that’s sailed without us. If we weren’t so demoralized, we’d sue Instagram for creating the impression that everyone else’s #VanLife is leading to book deals and profiles in The New Yorker.

James Patterson Teaches You To Writer A Bestseller. Learn More.

Don’t despair, dear reader. Charles Bukowski is about to make your day from beyond the grave.

In 1993, at the age of 73, the late writer and self-described “spoiled old toad,” took a break from recording the audiobook of Run With the Hunted to reflect upon his “crappy” life.

Some of these thoughts made it into Drew Christie’s animation, above, a reminder that the smoothest road isn’t always necessarily the richest one.

In service of his ill-paying muse, Bukowski logged decades in unglamorous jobs ---dishwasher, truckdriver and loader, gas station attendant, stock boy, warehouseman, shipping clerk, parking lot attendant, Red Cross orderly, elevator operator, and most notoriously, postal carrier and clerk. These gigs gave him plenty of material, the sort of real world experience that eludes those upon whom literary fame and fortune smiles early.

(His alcoholic misadventures provided yet more material, earning him such honorifics as the ”poet laureate of L.A. lowlife" and "enfant terrible of the Meat School poets.”)

One might also take comfort in hearing a writer as prodigious as Bukowski revealing that he didn’t hold himself to the sort of daily writing regimen that can be difficult to achieve when one is juggling day jobs, student loans, and/or a family. Also appreciated is the far-from-cursory nod he accords the therapeutic benefits that are available to all those who write, regardless of any public or financial recognition:

Three or four nights out of seven. If I don’t get those in, I don’t act right. I feel sick. I get very depressed. It’s a release. It’s my psychiatrist, letting this shit out. I’m lucky I get paid for it. I’d do it for nothing. In fact, I’d pay to do it. Here, I’ll give you ten thousand a year if you’ll let me write. 

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

New Film Project Features Citizens of Alabama Reading Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” a Poetic Embodiment of Democratic Ideals

In times of national anxiety, many of us take comfort in the fact that the U.S. has endured political crises even more severe than those at hand. History can be a teacher and a guide, and so too can poetry, as Walt Whitman reminds us again and again. Whitman witnessed some of the greatest upheavals and revolutionary changes the country has ever experienced: the Civil War and its aftermath, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the failure of Reconstruction, the massive industrialization of the country at the end of the 19th century....

Perhaps this is why we return to Whitman when we make what critics call a “poetic turn." His expansive, multivalent verse speaks for us when beauty, shock, or sadness exceed the limits of everyday language. Whitman contained the nation’s warring voices, and somehow reconciled them without diluting their uniqueness. This was, indeed, his literary mission, to “create a unified whole out of disparate parts,” argues Karen Swallow Prior at The Atlantic. “For Whitman, poetry wasn’t just a vehicle for expressing political lament; it was also a political force in itself.” Poetry’s importance as a binding agent in the fractious, fragile coalition of states, meant that for Whitman, the country’s “Presidents shall not be their common referee so much as their poets shall.”

Whitman wrote as a gay man who, by the time he published the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855, had gone from being an “ardent Free-Soiler” to fully supporting abolition. His poetry proclaimed a “radically egalitarian vision,” writes Martin Klammer, “of an ideal, multiracial republic.” A country that was, itself, a poem. “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem,” wrote Whitman in his preface. The nation’s contradictions inhabit us just as we inhabit them. The only way to resolve our differences, he insisted, is to embody them fully, with openness toward other people and the natural world. Understanding Whitman’s mission makes filmmaker Jennifer Crandall’s project Whitman, Alabama all the more poignant.

For two years, Crandall “crisscrossed this deep Southern state, inviting people to look into a camera and share part of themselves through the words of Walt Whitman.” To the question “Who is American?,” Crandall---just as Whitman before her---answers with a multitude of voices, weaving in and out of a collaborative reading of the epic “Song of Myself,” beginning with 97-year-old Virginia Mae Schmitt of Birmingham, at the top, who reads Whitman’s lines, “I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin / Hoping to cease not till death.” No one watching the video, Crandall remarks, should ask, “Why isn’t’ a thirty-seven year old man reading this?” To do so is to ignore Whitman’s design for the universal in the particular.

When Whitman penned the first lines of “Song of Myself,” the country had not yet “Unlimber’d” the cannons “to begin the red business,” as he would later write, but the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act had clearly lain the foundation for civil war. The poet's many revisions, additions, and subsequent editions of Leaves of Grass after his first small run in 1855 continued until his death in 1892. He was obsessed with the hugeness and dynamism of the country and its people, in their darkest, bloodiest moments and at their most flourishing. His vision lets everyone in, without qualification, constantly rewriting itself to meet new faces in the ever-changing nation.

As Mariam Jalloh, a 14-year old Muslim girl from Guinea, recites in her short portion of the reading further up, “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” Jollah quite literally makes Whitman’s language her own, translating into her native Fulani the line, “If they are not just as close as they are distant, they are nothing.” Jalloh “may seem like a surprising conduit for the writing of Whitman, a long-dead queer socialist poet from Brooklyn,” writes Christian Kerr at Hyperallergic, “but such incongruity is the active agent in Whitman, Alabama’s therapeutic salve.” It is also, Whitman suggested, the matrix of American democracy.

See more readings from the project above from Laura and Brandon Reeder of Cullman, the Sullivan family of Mobile, and by Demetrius Leslie and Frederick George, and Patricia Marshall and Tammy Cooper, inmates at mens’ and womens’ prisons in Montgomery. Whitman’s voice winds through these bodies and voices, settling in, finding a home, then, restless, moving on, inviting us all to join in the chorus, yet also—in its contrarian way—telling us to find our own paths. “You shall no longer take things at second or third hand....,” wrote Whitman, “nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books, / You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me, / You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself.”

Find many more readings at the Whitman, Alabama website. And stay tuned for new readings as they come online.

Also find works by Walt Whitman on our lists of Free Audio Books and Free eBooks.

via Hyperallergic

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Download Russian Futurist Book Art (1910-1915): The Aesthetic Revolution Before the Political Revolution

Given the image of Communist Russia we’ve mostly inherited from Cold War Hollywood propaganda and cherry-picked TV documentaries, we tend to think of Communist art as sterile, brutalist, devoid of expressive emotion and experiment. But this has never been entirely so. While Party-approved social realism dominated in certain decades, experimental Russian animation, film, design, and literature flourished, even under extremely harsh conditions one wouldn’t wish on any artist.

In the early days of the Revolution, one of the most influential forms of expression, Russian Futurism, brought its avant-gardism to the masses, and praised the Revolution while formally challenging every received idea or doctrine. Beginning in the early 20th century and working until the Soviet Union was formed and Trotsky banished, Futurist poets and artists like Vladimir Mayakovsky, Kazimir Malevich, Nalia Goncharova, and Velimir Khlebnikov contributed to a style called “Zaum,” a word, as we noted in a previous post, that can mean “transreason” or “beyond sense.” (A very unscientific, bourgeois approach, it would later be alleged by the Central Committee.)

Like modernist movements all over Europe, Russian Futurism took risks in every medium, but took a much more Dadaist approach than the Italian Futurists who had partly inspired them. They published prolifically---creating hundreds of books and journals between 1910 and 1930. A new book from Getty Research Institute curator Nancy Perloff, Explodity: Sound, Image, and Word in Russian Futurist Book Art, covers the first five years of that period---pre-Revolutionary but no more nor less radical. Her book is accompanied by an “interactive companion,” a site that allows users to see the publications and poems Perloff examines. If you scroll down to the bottom of the page, you’ll find a link to “digitized Russian avant-garde books from the Getty Research Institute.”

This archive contains about four dozen books by artist/poets like Khlebnikov whose 1914 Old-Fashioned Love; Forestly Boom, you can see pages from at the top of the post. Further up and just above, we see excerpts from Alexei Kruchenykh’s 1913 Vzorval' (Explodity), a mostly hand-lettered publication with whimsical, dynamic drawings alternating with and surrounding the text. You’ll find over four dozen of these books at the Getty Research Institute. As you browse or search their catalogue, then click on an entry, you’ll want to click on the “View Online” button to see scanned images.

Each of these books—like Vladimir Mayakovsky’s 1913 play, Vladimir Mayakovsky: A Tragedy, above and below---makes a forceful visual impression even if we cannot understand the text. But in many ways, this is beside the point. Zaum poetry was meant to be heard as sound, not sense, and looked at as a physical artifact. Perloff’s book, writes the Getty, “uncovers a wide-ranging legacy in the midcentury global movement of sound and concrete poetry (the Brazilian Noigandres group, Ian Hamilton Finlay, and Henri Chopin), contemporary Western conceptual art, and the artist’s book.” In many ways, these artists represent a parallel tradition in modernism to the one we generally learn of in Western Europe and the U.S., and one just as rich and fascinating.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Hear a Rare Poetry Reading by Captain Beefheart (1993)

When I find myself in times of musical trouble, Captain Beefheart comes to me. His Marcel Duchamp-meets-James Brown shtick goes places no other experimental prog-blues-jazz artist ever has---places of absurdist virtuosity where the gap between the artist and the mask disappears, where words and music have relationships that defy physical laws. Many have tried, but few have so well succeeded in the wild ambition to make surrealist verse cohere in songs that defy all traditional arrangements. For my experimental rock dime, no one has mastered the art so well as Beefheart and his Magic Band.

In fact, every musician, I believe, should sometimes ask themselves, “what would Captain Beefheart do?” But what about Beefheart’s relationship with the other arts? We probably know that the man also named Don Van Vliet was a prolific abstract painter throughout his career, the medium he chose for the last 28 years of his life after he hung up his saxophone in 1982. But did his “strange uncle of post-punk” musical sensibilities translate into poetry, a related but quite different art than that of even the most abstract songwriting?

Well, if Bob Dylan can win a Nobel Prize—and why not?—I see no reason why we can't consider the work of Captain Beefheart literary art. And in addition to his extraordinary Dadaist songs, Beefheart penned restrained, masterfully imagistic poems with wry humor and crystalline intelligence. His work surely belongs in Alan Kaufman’s Outlaw Bible of American Poetry right next to that of Dylan, Tom Waits, Patti Smith, Tupac Shakur, Gil Scott-Heron, Jim Morrison, the Beats, and dozens more non-musical writers. But it seems that Beefheart’s literary genius has been mostly overlooked.

That's unfortunate. In tense, vividly observed poems like “A Tin Peened Reindeer,” he approaches the elliptical mystery of Wallace Stevens and the baroque language of John Ashbery. Late songs like “The Thousandth and Tenth Day of the Human Totem Pole” condense the grotesque imaginary of Dali into a few staggering lines. Yet we don't get a collection of Beefheart readings until 1993, when he appeared in a short documentary by Anton Corbijn called Some Yo Yo Stuff.

You can watch that film at the top of the post, and in the videos below it, hear Van Vliet read poems and song lyrics in recordings from his time with Corbijn. Both in the film and in the readings, it is evident that the multiple sclerosis that killed Beefheart in 2010 had rendered speech difficult for him. But with patient listening, we hear that his sparkling wit and absurdist genius remained at full strength, as in another, long 1993 interview with Dutch radio host Co De Kloet.

Beefheart earned a reputation as an autocratic-yet-capricious bandleader (recording a tongue-in-cheek spoken word piece on the subject in earlier years). But in interviews, he came across as humble, sweet-tempered, and gentle, and as an artist whose work was an authentic outgrowth of his personality. These qualities shine through in even the goofiest, most out-there poems and lyrics.

Further up, hear Beefheart read the poems and songs "Fallin' Ditch," "The Tired Plain," "Skeleton Makes Good," "Safe Sex Drill," and "Gill," and in the playlist below, he reads all of those plus his poem, "Tulip," a short modernist gem reminiscent of both Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams:

It could be
a tremendous black upside-down tulip
it could be
a black fishes’ tail
it could be a day, artistically crimped
and buoyant
in its taped together way

Captain Beefheart's poems will be added to our collection, 900 Free Audio Books: Download Great Books for Free.

via Ubuweb

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

W.B. Yeats’ Classic Poem “When You Are Old” Gets Adapted Into a Beautiful Short Film

W.B. Yeats’ 1891 poem "When You Are Old" is widely considered a commentary on his unrequited lifelong passion for actress, Irish Republican and suffragette Maud Gonne.

Yeats first met Gonne in 1889 (a meeting which Yeats was later to describe in his memoirs as the day ‘the troubling of my life began’) and he remained in love with her for much of his life, proposing marriage at least four times. Gonne became his muse, and he drew on his tortured love for her, albeit unnamed, as the inspiration for many of his works, including most notably the poem, "When You Are Old."

Freely based on a sonnet by Pierre de Ronsard, which first appeared in Le Second Livre Des Sonnets Pour Hélène in 1578, "When You Are Old" enjoins the object of an unreturned love to reflect--in years to come--on a love rejected, to remember one who ‘loved your moments of glad grace’, and who ‘loved the pilgrim soul in you, And loved the sorrows of your changing face.’

Although Yeats’s poetry is often very dense and rich in allusion to mythology, the occult and history, in "When You Are Old" the pain and bittersweet nature of a spurned love is all too apparent.

Australian playwright Jessica Bellamy drew on the poem and her love of W.B. Yeats’ work when writing the theatre monologue "Little Love," which she then adapted with director Damien Power to create the short film Bat Eyes. Watch it above.

In Bat Eyes, Adam and Jenny (‘Bat Eyes’) Barrett are brought together through an incident of classroom bullying. Through the metaphor of visual impairment and an eye examination undergone by an adult Adam, Bellamy and Power explore the poem’s themes of longing, insight, revelation and regret, and poetry's capacity to provide solace and awaken empathy in everyday life. The script of this beautiful short film consists principally of the text of the poem, with the film’s two young leads repeating Yeats’ words back and forth to each other, as the story flips back and forth in time, the meaning of the lines becoming more tangible and resonant with each recitation.

Says Jessica Bellamy:

‘Yeats writes about ancient mythology and the history of his time, but you don’t have to understand all that to get the feeling of what he has to say. There are lines, there are moments that, as a reader, you just get and you think: I’m not alone in this world and that someone else has felt these things as well. I hope viewers will hear the truth of what this poem is saying, and that they’ll see the film as an ode to love, relationships and to poetry itself.

Gonne, who died in 1953, outlived Yeats by 14 years. She was photographed by Life magazine in October 1948, old and grey, sitting by a fire and reading Yeats poetry.

You can watch the original monologue, "Little Love," here:

And read and listen to the text of "When You Are Old" here. There's also a version read by Colin Farrell. Find it below.

Dan Prichard is an online film and webseries producer, based in Sydney, whose work explores identity, place, and the space between film and performance in the digital arena. Visit his website here.

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Image via Christiaan Tonnis

Americans can be quite ignorant of the richness of our country's cultural history. Part of this ignorance, I suspect, comes down to prejudice. Innovative American artists throughout history have come from groups often demonized and marginalized by the wider society. The dominance of corporate commerce also impoverishes the cultural landscape. Poetry and experimental art don’t sell much, so some people think they have little value.

Imagine if we were to invert these attitudes in public opinion: American poetry and art allow us to gain new perspectives from people and parts of the country we don’t know well; to enlarge and challenge our religious and political understanding; to experience a very different kind of economy, built on aesthetic invention and free intellectual enterprise rather than supply, demand, and profit. Creativity and finance are not, of course, mutually exclusive. But to consistently favor one at the expense of the other seems to me a great loss to everyone.

We find ourselves now in such a situation, as public universities, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting face severe cuts or possible de-funding.




Such a political move would devastate many of the institutions that foster and preserve the country’s art and culture, and relegate the arts to the private sphere, where only sums of private money determine whose voices get heard. We can, however, be very appreciative of private institutions who make their collections public through open access libraries like the Internet Archive.

One such collection comes from the Digital Initiatives Unit of Decker Library at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), one of the oldest art colleges in the U.S., and one of the most highly regarded. They have digitally donated to Archive.org “a number of rare and previously unreleased audio recordings,” they write in a press release, “spanning the 1960s through the late 1990s” and consisting of “over 700 audiocassette tapes” documenting “literature and poetry readings, fine art and design lectures, race and culture discussions” and college events.

These include (enter the archive here) a two hour poetry reading from Allen Ginsberg in 1978, at the top, with several other readings and talks from Ginsberg in the archive, the reading below it from Eileen Myles in 1992, and readings and talks above and below from Amiri Baraka, Anne Waldman, and William S. Burroughs. The collection represents a “strong focus on literature and poetry,” and features “a symposium on the Black Mountain poets.” Given the school’s mission, you’ll also find in the archive “a large selection of talks and lectures by visual artists, such as Elaine de Kooning, Alice Neel, Gordon Parks, Ad Rhinehart and Ben Shahn.”

Collections like this one from MICA and the Internet Archive allow anyone with internet access to experience in some part the breadth and range of American art and poetry, no matter their level of access to private institutions and sources of wealth. But the internet cannot fully replace or supplant the need for publicly funded arts initiatives in communities nationwide.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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