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01 MAY, 2015

JFK on Poetry, Power, and the Artist’s Role in Society: His Eulogy for Robert Frost, One of the Greatest Speeches of All Time

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“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.”

In January of 1961, as John F. Kennedy’s inauguration approached, his would-be Secretary of the Interior suggested that the poet Robert Frost participate in the ceremony as the first inaugural poet. Eighty-six-year-old Frost telegrammed Kennedy with his signature elegance of wit: “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.” He proceeded to deliver a beautiful ode to the dream of including the arts in government, which touched Kennedy deeply.

Frost died exactly two years later, in January of 1963. That fall, Amherst College invited the President to speak at an event honoring the beloved poet. On October 26, Kennedy took the podium at Amherst and delivered a spectacular speech mirroring back to Frost that deep dedication to the arts and celebrating the role of the artist in society. Perhaps more than any other public address, it affirmed JFK as that rare species of politician who is equally a poet and prophet of the human spirit.

The speech was eventually included in the altogether superb Farewell, Godspeed: The Greatest Eulogies of Our Time (public library) — a compendium of breathtaking adieus to cultural icons like Amelia Earhart, Martin Luther King, Jr., Emily Dickinson, Keith Haring, Eleanor Roosevelt, Charles Schulz, and Virginia Woolf, delivered by those who knew them best.

This original recording of the speech, while short in length, is endlessly ennobling in substance. Highlights below — please enjoy:

Strength takes many forms, and the most obvious forms are not always the most significant. The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the Nation’s greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us.

[…]

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 artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state… In pursuing his perceptions of reality, he must often sail against the currents of his time. This is not a popular role…

If sometimes our great artist have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential. I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist.

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… In free society art is not a weapon and it does not belong to the spheres of polemic and ideology. Artists are not engineers of the soul. It may be different elsewhere. But democratic society — in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation. And the nation which disdains the mission of art 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.”

Typed draft of the speech, edited in Kennedy's own hand (Courtesy of John F. Kennedy Library)

But as notable as the speech itself — for reasons both poetical and political — are the parts Kennedy edited out in his own hand, including this heartbreaking-in-hindsight passage from the second page:

We take great comfort in our nuclear stockpiles, our gross national product, our scientific and technological achievement, our industrial might — and, up to a point, we are right to do so. But physical power by itself solves no problems and secures no victories. What counts is the way power is used — whether with swagger and contempt, or with prudence, discipline and magnanimity. What counts is the purpose for which power is used — whether for aggrandizement or for liberation. “It is excellent,” Shakespeare said, “to have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant.”

Three weeks later, one of history’s ugliest and most arrogant misuses of brute power took place as JFK was assassinated, prompting Leonard Bernstein to pen his timelessly moving address on the only true antidote to violence. But the message at the heart of Kennedy’s speech continued to resonate even as his voice was silenced by brutality. Less than two years later, President Lyndon Johnson signed the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act, creating the National Endowment for the Arts — the very dream that Frost had dreamt up at JFK’s inauguration.

Complement with two more titans of poetry on the role of the artist in culture: E.E. Cummings on the agony and salvation of the artist and James Baldwin on the artist’s responsibility to society.

The JFK speech appears as the opening track on composer Mohammed Fairouz’s spectacular album Follow Poet — titled after a line from W.H. Auden’s beautiful elegy for W.B. Yeats — and can be heard in Fairouz’s wholly fantastic On Being conversation with Krista Tippett:

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27 APRIL, 2015

Einstein on the Common Language of Science in a Rare 1941 Recording

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“Perfection of means and confusion of goals seem — in my opinion — to characterize our age.”

What makes Albert Einstein endure as “the quintessential modern genius” isn’t merely his monumental contribution to science but also his unflinching faith in the human spirit and in our civilizational capacity for good even in the face of undeniable evil. At the peak of WWII — exactly a decade after his little-known correspondence with W.E.B. Du Bois on racial justice and exactly a decade before his letter to a disheartened young woman (incidentally, a Brain Pickings reader’s mother) affirming why we are alive — Einstein penned a piece titled “The Common Language of Science,” which aired as a radio broadcast for London’s Science Conference in September of 1941 and was soon published in the journal Advancement of Science. It was eventually included in the altogether indispensable anthology Ideas and Opinions (public library), which also gave us Einstein’s views on the value of kindness and the combinatory nature of creativity.

Einstein traces how language developed as a tool of transmuting thought into acoustic expression and evolved into “an instrument of reasoning,” then argues that science is the most international language there is — humanity’s sole shared instrument of reasoning — but the scientific method alone, without moral direction, is insufficient in assuring our civilizational welfare.

But there is another, subtler aspect of the recording that makes it profoundly pause-giving — perhaps one more discernible to those of us who live and think in a language not our native: Here is one of humanity’s most extraordinary minds, struggling to articulate its brilliant contents in a foreign language — slowly, imperfectly, with painfully measured words. There is no more jarring a reminder of our chronic tendency to mistake the presence of an accent for the absence of acumen — how often do people, even well-meaning and educated people, hear such verbal delivery by a stranger and immediately judge her intelligence as inferior to their own?

“You’ve got to tell the world how to treat you [or else] you are in trouble,” James Baldwin told Margaret Mead in their superb conversation on identity and the immigrant experience. And yet a central source of trouble in the immigrant experience is precisely the world’s inability to unbridle what you are saying from how you are saying it. It is wholly reasonable to surmise that even Einstein — who was once a little boy reticent to use even his native language — felt the weight of the unconscious social biases to which we are all susceptible.

This original recording of the piece, in Einstein’s own wonderfully accented voice, is nothing short of a cultural treasure. Transcribed highlights below — please enjoy.

The mental development of the individual and his way of forming concepts depend to a high degree upon language. This makes us realize to what extent the same language means the same mentality. In this sense thinking and language are linked together.

What distinguishes the language of science from language as we ordinarily understand the word? How is it that scientific language is international? What science strives for is an utmost acuteness and clarity of concepts as regards their mutual relation and their correspondence to sensory data.

[…]

The supernational character of scientific concepts and scientific language is due to the fact that they have been set up by the best brains of all countries and all times. In solitude, and yet in cooperative effort as regards the final effect, they created the spiritual tools for the technical revolutions which have transformed the life of mankind in the last centuries. Their system of concepts has served as a guide in the bewildering chaos of perceptions so that we learned to grasp general truths from particular observations.

What hopes and fears does the scientific method imply for mankind? I do not think that this is the right way to put the question. Whatever this tool in the hand of man will produce depends entirely on the nature of the goals alive in this mankind. Once these goals exist, the scientific method furnishes means to realize them. Yet it cannot furnish the very goals. The scientific method itself would not have led anywhere, it would not even have been born without a passionate striving for clear understanding.

Perfection of means and confusion of goals seem — in my opinion — to characterize our age. If we desire sincerely and passionately the safety, the welfare, and the free development of the talents of all men, we shall not be in want of the means to approach such a state. Even if only a small part of mankind strives for such goals, their superiority will prove itself in the long run.

Complement with the only surviving recording of Virginia Woolf’s voice and this rare 1929 recording of A.A. Milne reading from Winnie the Pooh, then revisit Einstein’s answer to a little girl’s question about whether scientists pray and his correspondence with Freud on war, peace, and human nature.

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24 APRIL, 2015

What Power Really Means: Cheryl Strayed Reads Adrienne Rich’s Homage to Marie Curie

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A poetic and precise formulation of what it means to be a great artist, a great woman, and a great human being.

“Stories are a meal,” one wise father told his eight-year-old daughter a long time ago. “But poetry is a glass of water, perhaps even a single drop that will save your life.” That’s precisely what poetry became for Cheryl Strayed as she hiked a thousand miles on the Pacific Crest Trail to put herself in the way of truth and beauty in a thoroughly transformative experience that became the magnificent memoir Wild that then became a major motion picture.

In her New York Public Library conversation with Paul Holdengräber, which also gave us her no-nonsense advice to aspiring writers, Strayed recounts her brush with this life-saving power of poetry and reads the first poem from Adrienne Rich’s 1977 masterwork The Dream of a Common Language (public library), titled “Power.” Folded into this nuanced homage to Marie Curie — a woman who died a “martyr to science” after a lifetime of crusading for curiosity and — is an exquisite meditation on what power really means:

POWER

Living in the earth-deposits of our history

Today a backhoe divulged out of a crumbling flank of earth
one bottle amber perfect a hundred-year-old
cure for fever or melancholy a tonic
for living on this earth in the winters of this climate

Today I was reading about Marie Curie:
she must have known she suffered from radiation sickness
her body bombarded for years by the element
she had purified
It seems she denied to the end
the source of the cataracts on her eyes
the cracked and suppurating skin of her finger-ends
till she could no longer hold a test-tube or a pencil

She died a famous woman denying
her wounds
denying
her wounds came from the same source as her power

What Strayed observes of Rich is perhaps the single most beautiful and precise formulation of what it means to be a great artist:

Adrienne Rich … did not die a woman who denied that her wounds came from the same source as her power. In fact, she spent her life making power from those wounds [but] Marie Curie… didn’t have that luxury — she had to deny that in order to be who she was in her time. But we don’t. And I think so much of the work I’ve done … and the work I hope I continue to do, is about writing into those wounds.

Complement The Dream of a Common Language, which remains a culturally vital and personally vitalizing masterpiece, with Rich on how love refines our truths, what “truth” really means, and her spectacular commencement address on claiming an education delivered months before this extraordinary book was published, then treat yourself to Rich’s own reading of another piercing poem from the same volume.

Subscribe to the New York Public Library’s always-excellent podcast here and join me in supporting the library in making such fantastic free public programming possible — you know Thoreau and Neil Gaiman would approve.

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21 APRIL, 2015

Love After Love: Derek Walcott’s Poetic Ode to Being at Home in Ourselves

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“Sit. Feast on your life.”

The great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has written beautifully about why learning to love others begins with learning to love ourselves — a sentiment that the reactive modern cynic might dismiss as the vacant fodder of self-help books, but one which more considered reflection reveals to be deeply truthful and deeply uncomfortable. What, after all, does loving oneself even mean — particularly if we’re aspiring to be unselfish and generous, and to outgrow the illusory ego-shell we call a self?

That’s what Caribbean poet and playwright Derek Walcott (b. January 23, 1930) — a writer of such extraordinary poetic prowess that his 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature appears a wholly inadequate measure of his mastery and mesmerism — addresses with a luminous sidewise gleam in a poem titled “Love After Love,” found in his Collected Poems: 1948–1984 (public library).

On an archival On Being episode titled “Opening to Our Lives,” mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn reads Walcott’s masterpiece — undoubtedly one of the greatest, most soul-stretching poems ever written. Please enjoy:

LOVE AFTER LOVE

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

This reading is part of On Being’s altogether wonderful Poetry Radio Project. Complement it with other poetry-lovers’ readings of favorite poems: Amanda Palmer reads Wislawa Szymborska, David Whyte reads Mary Oliver, Joanna Macy reads Rainer Maria Rilke, and my reading of Mark Strand.

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