Kennedy on the Poet's Civic Role

Topic: Poetry and the Poet

Grade Level: Grades 9-12

Subject Area: English Language Arts, US History

Time required: 1 hour

Goals/ Rationale: President Kennedy held a special regard for Robert Frost, whom he invited in January 1961 to deliver a poem for his inauguration. Frost died in January 1963, and in October of that year, Amherst College held a groundbreaking ceremony for the Robert Frost Library. At the ceremony, President Kennedy delivered a timeless speech about the importance of public service and the role of the poet in a democratic society. During the speech, he famously stated, “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 existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.” In this activity, students analyze the meaning of a significant portion of this speech (approximately 8 minutes), and then write a brief poem about the role of the poet in civic life.

Essential Question: What role can a poet play in a democracy?

Objectives

Students will be able to:

  • discuss the connection JFK makes between power and poetry.
  • describe the contributions JFK says that a poet can make to civic life.
  • write a poem about the role of the poet in civic life.

Prior Knowledge and Skills

Students should have read and analyzed at least one poem by Robert Frost. You may want them to study his famous poem, The Road Not Taken or choose another from the Poetry Foundation’s website (at the end of the biography page).

Historical Background and Context

Born in San Francisco in 1874, Robert Frost moved with his family to Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1884. He became known for creating poems steeped in references to New England. Though he published his first book of poems at age 40, he won four Pulitzer Prizes before his death at age 88.

Frost supported Kennedy in his 1960 presidential campaign, and was subsequently invited to read a poem at Kennedy’s inauguration. Their friendship developed and, during Kennedy’s presidency, Frost was a frequent guest at the White House.

In the late summer of 1962, Robert Frost visited the USSR with Stuart Udall, Kennedy’s Secretary of the Interior, where both met with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. After the visit, Frost met with news media and, according to Udall, inaccurately asserted that Khrushchev thought the US was “too liberal to fight.” This misrepresentation of Khrushchev’s position irritated Kennedy and soured the relationship between the two men.

After Frost’s death in January 1963, Amherst College decided to break ground on a library named for the poet, who had been a member of the faculty for more than 40 years. They invited President Kennedy to the groundbreaking on October 26, 1963, where he received an honorary degree and made a timeless speech referencing the poet’s role in civic life. It was one of the last speeches that Kennedy delivered before his assassination on November 22, 1963.

For more information about Robert Frost, visit the Poetry Foundation’s web page.

Materials

Procedure

  1. For background, have students visit this WGBH web page for brief information about the relationship between Frost and Kennedy, and Kennedy’s October 26, 1963 speech.
     
  2. Provide students with guiding questions as they read along with the audio clip of President Kennedy’s speech beginning at 6:39 to the end (about 8 minutes, beginning with the words, “This day devoted to the memory of Robert Frost…”) Pause, or instruct students to pause the audio, at times, to allow them to note their responses to the questions below:
  • What distinction does Kennedy make between politicians and poets?
  • What connections does Kennedy make between political power and poetry?
  • What contribution does Kennedy say that a solitary poet can make to civic life?
  • According to Kennedy, why is it important for an artist to maintain personal integrity? 
  1. Provide students an opportunity to share their answers.
     
  2. Assign students the task of writing a poem about the role of the poet in civic life. If they choose not to write an original poem, student may create a “found poem” by selecting and rearranging words and phrases from Kennedy’s speech.

Additional Resources

The President's Tribute to Robert Frost, 26 February 1962
This sound recording of President John F. Kennedy’s remarks was recorded for the television program “Robert Frost: American Poet.” The recording also contains remarks from Robert Frost discussing his work.

The Gift Outright by Robert Frost (Inaugural Poem)
Robert Frost recited this poem at John F. Kennedy's inauguration. Kennedy had suggested that if Frost  would prefer not to write a new poem, he could recite The Gift Outright. Though Frost planned to and did indeed recite The Gift Outright, he wrote an introductory poem especially for the event, but was unable to read it because of the bright sunlight. The new, undelivered poem, originally called "Dedication" was later titled "For John F. Kennedy His Inauguration."

Statement on Robert Frost's Death, 29 January 1963
This folder contains materials collected by the office of President John F. Kennedy's secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, concerning President Kennedy's statement on the death of poet Robert Frost.