Wendell Berry’s November Twenty-Six Nineteen Hundred Sixty Three is the only poem I know of that reflects on the aftermath of JFK’s death. Published as a book in 1964 and lettered and illustrated by Ben Shahn, it gave me words fifty years ago when I was too young and inarticulate to speak about sorrow and incomprehension. Fifty years later it’s still doing the necessary work of reminding me of the moment when innocence vanished into hard and uncertain truth. As the title suggests, it reflects on the place where we found ourselves the day after the President’s funeral. In its immediacy, it hints at the fact that in some way, we may still reside in that place:
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 the long approach of summers toward the healed ground where he will be waiting, no longer the keeper of what he was.
The poem points us toward the future, toward “the long approach of summers,” but the book’s poignant introduction raises questions that haunt me. In it, Ben Shahn explains his desire to illustrate Berry’s poem which he’d read in The Nation, to create a memorial “so that we may not so soon become inured to an unacceptable violence, a failure, a profound sadness.”
I leave it to you, dear reader, to decide if his fear has come to pass.
Meanwhile, please find and read this beautiful poem. First edition copies are available online.
November Twenty-Six Nineteen Hundred Sixty Three (Poem by Wendell Berry; Drawings by Ben Shahn) was published in New York by George Braziller (1964).