When Power Corrupts, Poetry Cleanses

atkins-bookshelf-literatureIn this moving, eloquent tribute to the great American poet, Robert Frost, President John F. Kennedy reflects on the role of the poet in modern society. Kennedy sees the poet as “the last champion of the individual mind” with the responsibility to use his talent to protect man from his own arrogance and self-deception. The tribute, entitled “Poetry and Power,” was originally published in the February issue of The Atlantic in 1964. Here are some excerpts from the tribute that reflect Kennedy’s (and his speechwriters, in this case, most likely Ted Sorensen) brilliant poetic diction, rhythm, and rhetoric:

[Robert] Frost was one of the granite figures of our time in America. He was supremely two things: an artist and an American. A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers.

In America our heroes have customarily run to men of large accomplishments. But today this college and country honor a man whose contribution was not to our size but to our spirit; not to our political beliefs but to our insight; not to our self-esteem but to our self-comprehension.

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. Our national strength matters; but the spirit which informs and controls our strength matters just as much. This was the special significance of Robert Frost.

At bottom he held a deep faith in the spirit of man. And 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 man 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 truths which must serve as the touchstones of our judgement. The artists, 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. The great artist is thus a solitary figure. He has, as Frost said, “a lover’s quarrel with the world.” In pursuing his perceptions of reality he must often sail against the currents of his time. This is not a popular role. If Robert Frost was much honored during his lifetime, it was because a good many preferred to ignore his darker truths. Yet, in retrospect, we see how the artist’s fidelity has strengthened the fiber of our national life…

In free society art is not a weapon, and it does not belong to the sphere of polemics and ideology. Artists are not engineers of the soul. It may be different elsewhere. But in a democratic society 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.”

Read related posts: Why We Read Poetry
The Responsibility of the Poet
The Poem I Turn to
The Nobility of the Writer’s Craft

For further reading: www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1964/02/poetry-and-power/306325/

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