By Bob Genower
When students and other people ask, “What use is poetry?” I have a snappy answer for them: it saved the world from nuclear Armageddon. In October 1962, the world hung on the brink of a catastrophic nuclear war in the thirteen days that became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. US President John F Kennedy was confronted with evidence that the Soviet Union had secretly installed a number of nuclear missiles on the island of Cuba, together with 40,000 Soviet troops. The response of Kennedy’s JSCs (Joint Service Chiefs: the heads of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines) was to advise immediate attack of the island and/or bombing of the missiles. I won’t go into details of those thirteen days when the world held its breath, but, basically, despite intense pressure from the JSCs and some members of JFK’s administration, Kennedy adroitly resolved the situation peacefully, causing Khrushchev (Soviet president) to withdraw the missiles. It is now generally thought that if Kennedy had given in to the bellicose advisers, nuclear war would have resulted. Ted Sorensen, one of the committee which met to discuss the crisis, said many years later, “If Kennedy had bowed to their pressure, the world would have been reduced to smoking rubble.”
In later years, long after his assassination, it became known that Kennedy often felt himself isolated in the White House, beleaguered both by the doomsday militarists and the intelligence chiefs he’d inherited from the previous administration, plus an often hostile Press. It was a Cold War period in which paranoia about the Red (communist) menace was fervent. To give himself some psychological support in standing his ground, JFK carried around with him in his wallet a pithy little poem composed by a Spanish bullfighter, Domingo Ortega. In Robert Graves’s translation, it goes like this:
Bullfight critics, row on row
Crowd the enormous plaza full;
But only one is there who knows
And he’s the man who fights the bull.
Kennedy was also an admirer of the American poet, Robert Frost (who read one of his poems at JFK’s inauguration), and frequently quoted Frost’s famous lines: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep/ But I have promises to keep/ And miles to go before I sleep/ And miles to go before I sleep.” There’s another Frost poem that obviously resonated with Kennedy, a lesser-known poem entitled “Choose Something Like a Star”, in which the narrator declares a need for something outside himself, not necessarily something religious, to keep one stable in an world that was full of factions too easily swayed by demagogues. I won’t type out the whole poem, but the last few lines are similar in philosophy to the bullfighter’s thought:
And steadfast as Keats’s eremite*,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It [a star] asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.
* a hermit
Kennedy gave a speech at Amherst College in honour of Robert Frost, in which he viewed poetry, and the arts in general, as essential to a healthy democracy. “In honouring Robert Frost,” he said, “we therefore can pay honour to the deepest sources of our national strength. That 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. Our national strength matters, but the spirit which informs and controls our strength matters just as much.
“At bottom [JFK continued], Robert Frost held a deep faith in man, and it’s hardly an accident that he coupled poetry with 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 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. 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.”
I think Kennedy’s words, delivered to his audience over 50 years ago, are as relevant and as inspiring as ever. He “sailed against the currents” of reckless aggression in the Cuban Missile Crisis, perhaps emboldened by a slip of paper in his wallet with those few verses from an obscure Spanish bullfighter. I would like to know if any students have any inspiring quotations they keep handy (probably on an iPhone rather than in a wallet!) for times when they need courage, inspiration or consolation. Please put them on MUSE – the words may just make a difference to somebody somewhere. They may even prevent a nuclear war… Speaking for myself, I keep a little book of quotations, and here’s one of my favourites: “Words are the most powerful drug used by mankind.” — Rudyard Kipling.