Candidates, lend me your ears
Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. pulled poetry from their hearts to heal and rouse the nation. As this National Poetry Month draws to a close, our politics could benefit from reconnecting with poetry as a source of insight.
Baton Rouge, LA.
In a marvelous online essay for The American Scholar, author Tim Wendel recalls how Robert Kennedy used the power of words to calm a crowd after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.Skip to next paragraph
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Kennedy, who was running for president, was about to address supporters when he heard the news of King's death. Aides hurriedly approached Kennedy with some written suggestions of what to say, but he disregarded them and spoke from his head and heart instead.
The young US senator mentioned his own family's suffering after losing a loved one to an assassin's bullet. Then he quoted from a poem by the ancient Greek writer Aeschylus that he had memorized long before:
Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
Falls drop by drop upon the heart,
Until, in our own despair, against our will,
Comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.
Mr. Wendel credits Kennedy's words with helping to soothe the nation's anxiety and anger after a tragedy. Wendel also notes King's own gifts for rhetoric – an ability that, like Kennedy's, was honed through intimate familiarity with poetry.
All of this comes to mind with the arrival of another April, which means yet another observance of National Poetry Month. The existence of such a month is an admission of sorts that we don't value poetry much anymore. If poetry still enjoyed a central place in American life, then such a well-meaning promotion wouldn't be needed.
Kennedy and King probably belonged to the last generation of Americans for whom the memorization of poetry was considered an essential part of a good education. While Kennedy was partial to Aeschylus, King honed his writing and speaking skills by drawing upon the poetry of the Bible. These two titans of the 1960s were part of a long tradition of American leaders who drew upon the power of poetry to guide the country.
John Adams looked to Shakespeare and Cervantes to enlarge his intellectual and moral imagination. In "The Swerve," his recent book about a poem by the ancient Roman writer Lucretius called "On The Nature of Things," author Stephen Greenblatt notes the poem's abiding influence on Thomas Jefferson. This deeply philosophical poem, writes Mr. Greenblatt, "helped to shape Jefferson's confidence that ignorance and fear were not necessary components of human existence."