All The President’s Poets

On the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination, Adam Gopnik looks back at the way American literati mourned his death:

John Berryman wrote a “Formal Elegy” for the President (“Yes. it looks like wilderness”); Auden an “Elegy for J.F.K.,” originally accompanied by twelve-tone music by Stravinsky. Robert Lowell—who in the Second World War had gone to prison as a conscientious objector, and in the late sixties became a Pentagon-bashing radical hero—wrote to Elizabeth Bishop that the murder left him “weeping through the first afternoon,” and then “three days of television uninterrupted by advertising till the grand, almost unbearable funeral.” The country, he said, “went through a moment of terror and passionate chaos.” Lowell’s friend and fellow-poet Randall Jarrell called it the “saddest” public event that he could remember. Jarrell tried to write an elegy but could get no further than “The shining brown head.”

The death of J.F.K. marked the last time the highbrow reaches of the American imagination were complicit in the dignity of the Presidency. In Norman Mailer’s “Presidential Papers,” published the month Kennedy died, the point is that there was a “fissure in the national psyche,” a divide between the passionate inner life of America and its conformist, repressed official life: “The life of politics and the life of myth had diverged too far.” For Mailer, Kennedy’s Presidency supplied the hope of an epiphany wherein the romantic-hero President would somehow lead his people on an “existential” quest to heal this breach. It sounded just as ridiculous then, but there was something gorgeous in the absurdity.

Caption for the above video:

It was a cold and sunny day in 1961 [during JFK’s inauguration] and the 87 year old Robert Frost could not read his poem, “Dedication”, that he wrote in honor of this special day for he was blinded by the bright sun. He fumpered on the podium because he could not see it and did not know it well. Richard Nixon came and held his top hat to block the sun for Mr.Frost who was extremely old and having problems. Instead, he recited from memory an oft requested poem, “The Gift Outright.”