University of Delaware Library
Bookmark and Share

JFK: Poets Remember

A photograph ofJohn F. Kennedy from a commemorative photo book published in 1963 by Special Productions, Inc.

November 22, 2013 – December 18, 2013

curated by
Curtis Small

Poetry and the President

During his three-year presidency, John F. Kennedy emphasized the importance of poetry for civic life. Speaking in 1963 he said, “When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations…when power corrupts, poetry cleanses.”  Kennedy’s was the first inauguration for which a U.S. Poet Laureate, Robert Frost, composed a poem.*  The last lines of that poem announced “A golden age of poetry and power/Of which this noonday’s the beginning hour.” 

When Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, professional and amateur poets immediately began writing verses that expressed the shock and despair shared by millions.  A similar thing had happened in 1865 when President Abraham Lincoln was shot to death by actor John Wilkes Booth.  The most famous poem from that time is Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”  

While no poetic homage to Kennedy has become as famous as Whitman’s poignant elegy, many of America’s finest poets did respond to the latter event, which seared the consciousness of a generation.  This exhibit displays a few examples, drawn from University of Delaware Library Special Collections.

(*Due to wind and light conditions, Frost did not read his new poem at the Inauguration. Instead, he recited another piece, "The Gift Outright," from memory.)

1. Wendall Berry and Ben Shahn

November Twenty Six Nineteen Hundred Sixty Three.  New York: George Brazziler, 1963.  Robert A. Wilson collection

The cover of Wendall Berry and Ben Shahn's book November Twenty Six Nineteen Hundred Sixty Three

Soon after Kennedy’s assassination, a moving poem by Wendall Berry appeared in The Nation magazine.  When artist Ben Shahn read it, he was moved to create this book, in which he added his own drawings to the text of Berry’s poem. Shahn also designed the lettering.  Independent publisher George Braziller published November Twenty Six Nineteen Hundred Sixty Three as a fine press book, printed on Italian handmade Fabriano paper and inscribed by the author to Robert A. Wilson. The first line of the poem can be seen in the image shown below.

A photo of the book November Twenty Six Nineteen Hundred Sixty Three open to the first line of the poem, with a drawing by Ben Shahn on the facing page


2. W.H. Auden

Gedichte. (Poems) Translated by Hans Egon Halthusen. Kӧln: Verlag Klepenheuer & Witsch, 1967.  Robert A. Wilson collection

A photo of W.H. Auden's copy of an offprint of the German translation of his poem

This German translation of Auden’s poem
“Elegy for J.F.K.” was published in Germany in
1967, as part of a collection of the poet's work.
 A post-it note laid in with this offprint states
that it was Auden’s own copy. A version of the
poem in English appeared in the book Of Poetry
and Power
, which is featured in this exhibit.
It reads thus:

Why then? Why there?
Why thus, we cry, did he die?
The Heavens are silent.

What he was, he was:
What he is fated to become
Depends on us.

Remembering his death,
How we choose to live
Will decide its meaning.

When a just man dies
Lamentation and praise
Sorrow and joy are one.



    3. Photograph of Kennedy Funeral Cortège

    Senator John J. Williams papers; gift of Mrs. Elsie Steele Wiliams

A photgraph of John f. Kennedy's funeral procession

This photograph shows features of the military honors that are part of a presidential funeral. The three riderless horses helping to pull the President’s coffin are an element of tradition.  In addition to these, a riderless or “caparisoned” horse can be seen behind the caisson bearing the coffin.  The horse is present in military funerals for Army or Marine officers of the rank of colonel or higher, as well as for presidents, who serve as head of this country’s armed forces. Abraham Lincoln was the first U.S. president to receive this funerary honor.

4. Erwin A. Glikes and Paul Schwaber (eds.)

A photograph of the cover of the book Of Poetry and Power: Poems Occasioned by the Presidency and by the Death of John F. Kennedy
Of Poetry and Power: Poems Occasioned by the Presidency and Death of John F. Kennedy. New York:  Basic Books, Inc. Robert A. Wilson collection

This collection from 1964 is comprised mostly of poems written soon after Kennedy’s assassination.  After conceiving the project, the editors wrote to a number of British and American poets, requesting works they might have written in response to the assassination.  Many well known poets contributed.

This particular first edition bears signatures by Allen Ginsberg, Donald Hall, May Swenson, Philip Booth, Barbara Howes, Howard Moss, Gregory Corso and Louis Zukofsky.  W.H. Auden’s, Gwendolyn Brooks’s and Richard Hollander's contributions to the volume are featured separately in this exhibit. 

In their introduction the editors wrote, “We wanted the poems to be available to the generation that had lived with John F. Kennedy and must now live with his death. “


5. Robert Hollander

“November 22, 1963.” Of Poetry and Power: Poems Occasioned by the Presidency and Death of John F. Kennedy. New York:  Basic Books, Inc. Robert A. Wilson collection

Gwendolyn Brooks

“Assassination of John F. Kennedy.” Of Poetry and Power: Poems Occasioned by the Presidency and Death of John F. Kennedy. New York:  Basic Books, Inc. Robert A. Wilson collection

The text of the Gwendolyn Brooks poem Assassination of John F. Kennedy

This page is maintained by Special Collections.