Ashbery was awarded the National Humanities Medal and Dove was awarded the National Medal of the Arts. A combined 15 artists were awarded medals at the ceremony, including actor Al Pacino.
In a speech that opened the event, Obama quoted Dickinson’s “I dwell in possibility (#657).”
“What connects every one of you is that you dwell in possibilities,” Obama said. “You create new possibilities for all of us, and that’s a special trait. And it assigns you a special task, because in moments of calm and in moments of crisis, in times of triumph as in times of tragedy, you help guide our growth as a people.”
Obama also said that “there is not one of us here who has not had their beliefs challenged by a writer’s elements.” He went on to discuss Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing.”
“It’s a poem that, with simple eloquence, spotlights our diversity and our spirit of rugged individualism — the messy, energized, dynamic sense of what it is to be an American,” he said. “Whitman lifts up the voices of mechanics and carpenters, masons and boatmen, shoemakers, woodcutters, the mother and the young wife at work, each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else.”