Senator Kennedy read for the Academy of American Poets at Poetry & the Creative Mind, which is an annual fundraising benefit for the Academy of American Poets, on April 6, 2004. He read at Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center as part of a lineup that included Meryl Streep, Vanessa Redgrave, Wynton Marsalis, Kevin Kline, Tony Kushner, Brice Marden, Mary-Louise Parker, Diane Sawyer, Cynthia Rowley, Louis Menand, and Samantha Power. A transcription of his remarks follows.
For my first reading, I've chosen "The Gift Outright," which was recited by Robert Frost at President Kennedy's Inauguration. My brother wanted Frost to be included in the ceremony, to indicate the higher priority he intended to give the arts in our national life. Frost had written a special introduction for the poem, but the glare from the sun and the snow that day prevented him from reading it. So he went directly to the poem and recited it from memory. I think of it as the poem that began the new frontier for the arts.
[Kennedy reads "The Gift Outright"]
I now would like to read a few verses from "John Brown's Body," by Stephen Vincent Benét. My mother primed us to appreciate poetry almost as soon as we could read. She often asked us to memorize a poem and recite it out loud, so that we—and no doubt she—could hear the meter and rhyme.
When I was a student at Milton Academy, I was introduced to Stephen Vincent Benét and his epic Civil War poem "John Brown's Body." Benét won a Pulitzer Prize for this poem in 1929. I was immediately struck by the story, of course, but also by the strength of the meter and rhyme. My brother Jack was a young Congressman at the time, and I remember telling him about the poem.
He loved history, and he loved the poem too. It became one of his favorites.
I'd like to read two passages from the poem. The first is not in the program. It is about Mary Lou Wingate, a strong southern woman and the mistress of Wingate Hall, and it gives us vivid insights into southern life at the time of the Civil War.
[Kennedy reads an excerpt from "John Brown's Body"]
In the next passage, Wingate, a Confederate cavalryman and master of Wingate Hall, returns home on brief leave from the war. This passage describes his first sighting of Wingate Hall again, and his fear that he may be seeing Mary Lou for the last time.
[Kennedy reads a second excerpt from "John Brown's Body"]
I couldn't resist adding one last poem. It is a poem that Jackie wrote for Jack and gave to him on their first wedding anniversary in 1954. She called it "Meanwhile in Massachusetts," and it was recently published in a book by Caroline of Jackie's favorite poems.
Jackie inscribed the poem to Jack with words from Napoleon, "Great men are meteors consuming themselves to light the world." Jackie knew how much Jack loved "John Brown's Body," and I think you'll hear the echoes of Benét as I read it.
[Kennedy reads "Meanwhile in Massachusetts"]