It is fifty-one years now since President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. It was one of the greatest shocks the American people have ever experienced, one of those beautiful sunlit days like 9/11 in which everything suddenly went wrong. In the days that followed there was a massive outpouring of commemoration and reflection, including an elegant straightforward elegy for the President in the magazine The Nation by a twenty-nine year old poet from Kentucky: Wendell Berry.
Now eighty years old, Wendell Berry is one of the most significant voices of our literature. A distinguished poet, novelist, short story writer and essayist, he is perhaps best known now for his powerful essays in defense of stewardship, conservation, and the preservation of culture. He moved back to his home county in Kentucky from New York in the early 1960s to write, farm, and teach, and he still lives today on the farm in Henry County, Kentucky to which he returned with his wife Tanya and their two children in the sixties. He has developed a worldwide reputation as a profound critic of our industrial economy. He speaks eloquently of the need for healthy agriculture, ecological sanity, and civilized relationships among citizens, family members, communities, and nations.
You may have been influenced by Wendell Berry without even knowing it. If you are a supporter of local farmers, farmer’s markets, healthy agriculture, and just about any kind of ecological sustainability, know that Wendell Berry has been writing about these things for decades, exerting a powerful philosophical influence on these movements through well-crafted essays reaching a wide audience over time.
But fifty-one years ago it was his poem in memory of John F. Kennedy that had plenty of readers taking notice. Titled “November Twenty Six Nineteen Hundred Sixty Three,” the poem, in the words of scholar Andrew Angyal, “makes use of repetition and refrain and incorporates the traditional elegiac cycle of shock, grief, mourning, the funeral procession, the internment, and the apotheosis of the subject’s memory.” The title comes from the day of John F. Kennedy’s funeral. The poem has eleven stanzas.
In early 1964, a book edition of the poem was published by George Braziller Inc. of New York with drawings by Ben Shahn, the distinguished painter, graphic artist, and photographer. In a short introduction, Shahn writes that he found the poem “extraordinarily moving.” He adds “It was right in every way; it was modest and unrhetorical. It examined soberly and sensitively just this event in its every detail. Its images were the images of those days, no others. In so sharply scrutinizing his own feelings, the poet has discovered with an uncanny exactness all our feelings. His words have created a certain monument, not pretentious, but real, and shared. When I read the poem, I wanted it preserved, read, not lost in the pages of last week’s magazine. I turned it into a book, accompanied by the images that it invokes for me.”
The book has a total of twenty-nine pages, twenty-two pages devoted to both text of the poem and illustrations on the left side pages. Only one page is in color—the final illustration of a man standing in a field. The book was lettered and illustrated by Shahn and was printed at The Meriden Gravure Company in Meriden, Connecticut. The books were bound by Haddon Craftsmen, Inc. of Scranton, Pennsylvania. In addition to the poem’s virtues, the book is an interesting example of Shahn’s style and a cultural artifact of the early 1960s in America.
Shahn’s work would be used again for one of Berry’s books. Shahn’s “Sunday Painting” (1938) is featured on the cover of Berry’s A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997 (1998).
While the idea for a stand alone book edition of the poem seems to have been Shahn’s idea, 1964 was also the year in which Berry published his first collection of poetry: The Broken Ground. Many distinguished volumes have followed.
Here is the poem in its entirety. This is how it appeared in the pages of The Nation, except for the fact that any line after the first was tabbed over about five spaces. I tried to do it in WordPress, but the lines jumped back to the margin.
We know the winter earth upon the body of the young
President, and the early dark falling:
we know the veins grown quiet in his temples and
wrists, and his hands and eyes grown quiet;
we know his name written in the black capitals
of his death, and the mourners standing in the
rain, and the leaves falling;
we know his death’s horses and drums; the roses, bells,
candles, crosses; the faces hidden in veils;
we know the children who begin the youth of loss
greater than they can dream now;
we know the night long coming of faces into the candle-
light before his coffin, and their passing;
we know the mouth of the grave waiting, the bugle and
rifles, the mourners turning away;
we know the young dead body carried in the earth into
the first deep night of its absence;
we know our streets and days slowly opening into the
time he is not alive, filling with our footsteps and
we know ourselves, the bearers of the light of the earth
he is given to, and the light of all his lost
we know the long approach of summers towards the
healed ground where he will be waiting, no longer the
keeper of what he was.
November Twenty Six Nineteen Hundred Sixty Three. Wendell Berry. Illustrations by Ben Shahn. George Braziller Inc., New York, 1964.
Wendell Berry. Andrew J. Angyal. Twayne Publishers. Connecticut, 1995.