• Inspiration

     

     

  • In this era of political tension, when civic culture is fractured, when the value of the liberal arts is questioned, a message from 1963 has particular resonance toda​y.

     

    Twenty-seven days before he was assassinated, President Kennedy came to Amherst College to honor the poet Robert Frost. He spoke of the relationship between poetry and power and of a view shared with Frost that power must be exercised, but wisely -- tempered by a moral restraint inspired by the arts and a liberal education. And, he spoke of the obligation of those “given a running start in life” to serve the public interest.

     

    The President and The Poet, a new documentary coinciding with the 2017 centenary of JFK’s birth, communicates the impact of this message through the stories of Amherst alumni and students and reflections by prominent scholars and political observers. Produced by an award winning filmmaker, this film will ignite public discourse on enduring values and on our shared responsibility for the public interest. It is a call to action to rebuild our civic sphere -- infused with broad sympathy, understanding, and compassion.

    - Reunion '64

     

    The President and the Poet

     

     

     

    On Robert Frost

    Everything about him -- the seeming simplicity of his poems, the silver beauty of his head, his age, his Yankee tongue, his love of talk, his ease upon a lecture platform -- everything combined to put him within each reach. No one in my time upon this planet was so pursued by fame as Frost ....

     

    It was his eightieth birthday. Frost had been in New York where every possible honor, including some not possible, had been paid him, and, returning here to Amherst and his friends, he fell to talking of what honor really was, or would be: to leave behind him, as he put it, "a few poems it would be hard to get rid of."

     

    It sounds like a modest wish but Frost knew, as his friends knew, that it wasn't. Poems are not monuments -- shapes of stone to stand and stand. Poems are speaking voices. And a poem that is hard to get rid of is a voice that is hard to get rid of. And a voice that is hard to get rid of is a man. What Frost wanted for himself in the midst of all the praise was what Keats had wanted for himself in the midst of no praise at all: to be among the English poets at his death -- the poets of the English tongue.

    -Archibald MacLeish, Convocation Address at Amherst, October 26, 1963

  • On the Kennedy-Frost Relationship

    Kennedy invited Frost to participate in the inauguration ceremonies and the poet answered via telegraph:

     

    IF YOU CAN BEAR AT YOUR AGE THE HONOR OF BEING MADE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES, I OUGHT TO BE ABLE AT MY AGE TO BEAR THE HONOR OF TAKING SOME PART IN YOUR INAUGURATION. I MAY NOT BE EQUAL TO IT BUT I CAN ACCEPT IT FOR MY CAUSE—THE ARTS, POETRY, NOW FOR THE FIRST TIME TAKEN INTO THE AFFAIRS OF STATESMEN.

     

    Kennedy asked if Frost planned to recite a new poem. If not, could he recite “The Gift Outright," a poem Frost called “a history of the United States in a dozen [actually, sixteen] lines of blank verse.

    Frost composed “Dedication” (later retitled “For John F. Kennedy His Inauguration”), to be read as a preface to the poem Kennedy requested.

     

    DEDICATION

    Summoning artists to participate

    In the august occasions of the state

    Seems something artists ought to celebrate.

    Today is for my cause a day of days.

    And his be poetry’s old-fashioned praise

    Who was the first to think of such a thing.

    This verse that in acknowledgement I bring

    Goes back to the beginning of the end

    Of what had been for centuries the trend;

    A turning point in modern history.

    Colonial had been the thing to be

    As long as the great issue was to see

    What country’d be the one to dominate

    By character, by tongue, by native trait,

    The new world Christopher Columbus found.

    The French, the Spanish, and the Dutch were downed

    And counted out. Heroic deeds were done.

    Elizabeth the First and England won.

    Now came on a new order of the ages

    That in the Latin of our founding sages

    (Is it not written on the dollar bill

    We carry in our purse and pocket still?)

    God nodded his approval of as good.

    So much those heroes knew and understood,

    I mean the great four, Washington,

    John Adams, Jefferson, and Madison

    So much they saw as consecrated seers

    They must have seen ahead what not appears,

    They would bring empires down about our ears

    And by the example of our Declaration

    Make everybody want to be a nation.

    And this is no aristocratic joke

    At the expense of negligible folk.

    We see how seriously the races swarm

    In their attempts at sovereignty and form.

    They are our wards we think to some extent

    For the time being and with their consent,

    To teach them how Democracy is meant.

    “New order of the ages” did they say?

    If it looks none too orderly today,

    ‘Tis a confusion it was ours to start

    So in it have to take courageous part.

    No one of honest feeling would approve

    A ruler who pretended not to love

    A turbulence he had the better of.

    Everyone knows the glory of the twain

    Who gave America the aeroplane

    To ride the whirlwind and the hurricane.

    Some poor fool has been saying in his heart

    Glory is out of date in life and art.

    Our venture in revolution and outlawry

    Has justified itself in freedom’s story

    Right down to now in glory upon glory.

    Come fresh from an election like the last,

    The greatest vote a people ever cast,

    So close yet sure to be abided by,

    It is no miracle our mood is high.

    Courage is in the air in bracing whiffs

    Better than all the stalemate an’s and ifs.

    There was the book of profile tales declaring

    For the emboldened politicians daring

    To break with followers when in the wrong,

    A healthy independence of the throng,

    A democratic form of right divine

    To rule first answerable to high design.

    There is a call to life a little sterner,

    And braver for the earner, learner, yearner.

    Less criticism of the field and court

    And more preoccupation with the sport.

    It makes the prophet in us all presage

    The glory of a next Augustan age

    Of a power leading from its strength and pride,

    Of young ambition eager to be tried,

    Firm in our free beliefs without dismay,

    In any game the nations want to play.

    A golden age of poetry and power

    Of which this noonday’s the beginning hour.

     

    But Frost was unable to read the new poem as the wind and the bright snow made reading the poem impossible. Instead he recited “The Gift Outright” from memory.

     

    The Gift Outright

    The land was ours before we were the land’s.

    She was our land more than a hundred years

    Before we were her people. She was ours

    In Massachusetts, in Virginia,

    But we were England’s, still colonials,

    Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,

    Possessed by what we now no more possessed.

    Something we were withholding made us weak

    Until we found out that it was ourselves

    We were withholding from our land of living,

    And forthwith found salvation in surrender.

    Such as we were we gave ourselves outright

    (The deed of gift was many deeds of war)

    To the land vaguely realizing westward,

    But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,

    Such as she was, such as she will become.

     

    Later, Frost called on the new President and First Lady at the White House to receive Kennedy’s thanks for participating in the event. He presented Kennedy with a manuscript copy of the “Dedication” poem, on which he wrote: “Amended copy. And now let us mend our ways.” He also gave the President the advice: “Be more Irish than Harvard. Poetry and power is the formula for another Augustan Age. Don’t be afraid of power.”