Promises to Keep
John Kennedy quoted from the final stanza of Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” at the close of many of his campaign speeches: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep / But I have promises to keep, / And miles to go before I sleep.” These words were eclipsed by his inaugural speech and many of the speeches he made following, but the intent was always there, he had much to do, and his ambition for his country was just as deep as his ambition for himself, but sadly there weren’t as many miles before sleep as anyone anticipated.
Poets speak at presidential inaugurations on a regular basis today, but Kennedy was the first to personally invite Frost to read a poem at his 1961 inauguration, even suggesting his personal favorite, “A Gift Outright”. Frost was well-known and the United States Senate had actually passed a resolution naming Frost “America’s great poet-philosopher.” Kennedy was not joking when he told Frost that the poet might steal the show; in fact, Kennedy gave Frost credit for his early momentum because of Frost’s prediction that Kennedy would win the upcoming election, and this before Kennedy had even declared his candidacy.
I was two years old when Kennedy was killed. We look at Camelot, at lovely Jackie and the Kennedy family and all their scandals, Kennedy himself and all that happened behind the scenes, the women and the illnesses, the diplomatic near-misses of the Bay of Pigs and early civil rights legislation and it’s so confusing whether what he did and who he was, was good or bad, or successful or a failure. That a president thought enough of a poet, and of the importance of the efforts of creative people, to include the reading of a poem as part of his hard-won inauguration, and then to follow through with a constant stream of the arts and artists at the White House and in government programs for schools and communities, and I have to think many of those promises he spoke of in his campaign had to do with understanding that the free flow of creative thought trains the mind to fly to places where humans have never gone, and there to find the cure for cancer, the secret to world peace, the path to equal rights in our country, compassion for disadvantaged people.
Learning about his presidency was and still is an inspiration to me. He led us to the path for making this country a great place to live, and his inaugural statement that we ask what we can do for our country is the promise we still need to keep. Encouraging creative thought in children and adults alike is one of those promises that was important to him, and it’s a promise we can keep, every day, in so many ways.
Poetry and Power: Robert Frost’s Inaugural Reading
On Art and Government: The Poem Robert Frost Didn’t Read at JFK’s Inauguration
Robert Frost Dies at 88; Kennedy Leads in Tribute