Monday, May 29, 2017

Monday's Poetry: "I Have a Rendezvous with Death"

by Pa Rock
Poetry Appreciator

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, one hundred years ago today.  His life was cut short by an assassin less than forty-seven years later, but during Kennedy's brief time on earth he distinguished himself as a war hero, a Pulitzer Prize winning author, and election as the thirty-fifth President of the United States.

Kennedy was, like his wife Jacquelyn, a fan of poetry.  He initiated the modern practice of including a poet to speak at Presidential inaugurations by extending an invitation to New England's best known poet, Robert Frost, to recite one of his works at the inauguration.  Kennedy asked that the aging poet either read his sixteen-line work, "The Gift Outright," or an original work written especially for the inauguration.  Frost, who was excited about the invitation, chose at the last minute to create an original poem for the occasion.  That forty-two line effort, entitled "Dedication," was too lengthy for Frost to memorize before the ceremony, so he chose instead to read the piece.  The weather, however, did not cooperate, and once Frost began trying to read the poem he realized that he could not overcome the sun's glare off of the snow-covered ground.  He put the new poem back in his pocket and opted to return to the original plan and recite "The Gift Outright.".

One of Kennedy's favorite poems was "I Have a Rendezvous with Death" by Alan Seeger.  Seeger, an American, served with the French Foreign Legion during World War I and was killed while fighting in France.  His poem seemed to foretell his own death, and it shouldn't be too much of a stretch to imagine that it also stirred thoughts in young John Kennedy of his own demise.  JFK reportedly enjoyed having Jackie recite Seeger's poem to him.

(For those with long memories, I also used this poem last year on Memorial Day as the focus of this post.  Because of its connection to John Kennedy, I decided to run it again this year both out of respect to JFK as well as to honor Memorial Day.)

Alan Seeger, an uncle to folksinger Pete Seeger and a classmate of T.S. Eliot at Harvard, rendezvoused with death at the Battle of the Somme on July 4, 1916 when he was just twenty-eight-years-old.   Kennedy's rendezvous with death was on November 22, 1963, in Dallas Texas.  Both lives were cut needlessly short through acts of violence.  Both young men packed a lot of life into their few years, understanding the urgency of living and the certainty of dying.

Here is the poem that prepared them for that final rendezvous.

I Have a Rendezvous with Death
by Alan Seeger

I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air-
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.

It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath-
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.

God knows 'twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear...
But I've a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

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