JFK: Poets Remember
November 22, 2013 – December 18, 2013
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.)
November Twenty Six Nineteen Hundred Sixty Three. New York: George Brazziler, 1963. Robert A. Wilson collection
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.