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

Theodor Adorno’s Rad­i­cal Cri­tique of Joan Baez and the Music of the Viet­nam War Protest Move­ment

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

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  • Janet Geyer says:

    Beau­ti­ful work by Kennedy, Frost and oth­ers.

    I feel lucky to have you share these gems with me, Rob­bin.

    Learn­ing a lot from your paint­ings, pho­to’s, and oth­er famous speech­es.

    Thank you. We will march for the arts!!!

    Love, mom

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