I had the privilege of watching a thought-provoking Zoom symposium today, sponsored in part by the San Diego Public Library Foundation and the Robert Frost Society.
It was entitled A Symposium on Poetry and Power: An Online Screening of the Documentary Film, JFK: The Last Speech.
Featured were President John F. Kennedy giving what would be his last public speech at Amherst College on October 26,1963–some say the best speech of his administration; clips of the president and poet Robert Frost’s relationship early in the Kennedy Administration; and, Amherst alumni sharing how the speech energized their lives and, in many cases, altered their career plans.
It was followed by a panel discussion about the intersection of poetry and politics that included alumni from the Amherst Class of 1964 that witnessed the speech, Frost biographers, and literature professors and poets from various universities.
In his speech in 1963 just four weeks before his assassination, Kennedy discussed the importance of a liberal arts education–for which Amherst College is noted–so American citizens could better prepare for a life of social service that fostered social justice. As he said, “The artist . . . becomes the last champion of the individual mind.” Poetry, as part of a liberal arts education, can help plant the seeds of social awareness and raise calls to action via its words and images. How? By providing doors to art for all, not just the elite; mirrors where readers, listeners, and would-be poets can find themselves and others; and, windows for changing, even improving, our perspectives on the world.
So, get a clue, Readers. Think about it: poetry and politics have certainly amplified each other throughout American history, whether it was Robert Frost reading his poem “The Gift Outright” at JFK’s inauguration, or Amanda Gorman reciting her masterpiece “The Hill We Climb” at Joe Biden’s. But this integration isn’t limited to inaugurations. Poetry can help us imagine possibilities for a better world, especially when bolstered by effective political activism by citizens. If you’d like to see and hear JFK’s famous Amherst speech on YouTube, click HERE. It runs for 14:32 minutes.