Saturday, June 6, 2015
Presidents Who Write Poetry?
When one thinks of poetry in Washington, DC, I suppose one of the least likely places one would turn to would be the White House. But surprisingly some of the residents of the White House dabbled in poetry at some point in their life.
George Washington wrote about the throes of love in his teenage years, but then many people attempt this during this period of their life. Fortunately for us the Library of Congress has kept track of most of these endeavors.
Here is the beginnings of an acrostic Washington might have written about Frances Alexander. But it’s important to note that some scholars believe Washington might have lifted it from an undetermined source.
From your bright sparkling Eyes, I was undone
Rays, you have, more transparent than the sun,
Amidst its glory in the rising Day,
None can you equal in your bright array;
Constant in your calm and unspotted Mind;
Equal to all, but will to none Prove kind,
So knowing, seldom one so Young, you’l Find
Ah! woe’s me that I should Love and conceal,
Long have I wish’d, but never dare reveal,
Even though severely Loves Pains I feel;
Xerxes that great, was’t free from Cupids Dart,
And all the greatest Heroes, felt the smart.
I wasn’t surprised to read that Thomas Jefferson wrote some poetry; certainly he was well read. Here below is “A death-bed Adieu” which he wrote in bed during his final days of illness in 1826 for his daughter Martha Randolph.
“A death-bed Adieu. Th:J to MR.”
Life’s visions are vanished, it’s dreams are no more.
Dear friends of my bosom, why bathed in tears?
I go to my fathers; I welcome the shore,
which crowns all my hopes, or which buries my cares.
Then farewell my dear, my lov’d daughter, Adieu!
The last pang in life is in parting from you.
Two Seraphs await me, long shrouded in death;
I will bear them your love on my last parting breath.
James Madison wrote political satire in poetic form while he was at the College of New Jersey which is currently Princeton University. Madison’s poems are recorded in William Bradford’s notebook for the American Whig Society.
John Quincy Adams wrote poetry throughout his life and stated: “Could I have chosen my own genius and condition, I would have made myself a great poet.” Of course, this ambition escaped him, even though he attempted the art in different forms from secular verse to hymns and adapted the Psalms. After his death, Senators Thomas Hart Benton and John Davis, who served as editors, collected and published Adams’ poetry in a volume titled “Poems of Religion and Society” (1848). Even Ralph Waldo Emerson included a poem by Adams titled “The Wants of Man” in his collection of poetry titled “Parnassus.”
Poetry is for lovers. Perhaps? John Tyler who courted and eventually married Julia Gardiner wrote and refined a ballad titled “Sweet Lady, Awake! A Serenade.” Once married in the White House, his wife Julia set the ballad to music. During his lifetime, he shared his poetry with friends and family, and poetry served as a balm for difficult periods of his life.
Abraham Lincoln was also a serious reader of poetry and wrote poetry as a teenager, mostly between fifteen and seventeen. Between 1837-39, Lincoln participated in a group called “a Kind of Poetical Society” where he often submitted poems; however, none have survived. But James Matheny, Lincoln’s Springfield neighbor, recalls this off-color stanza:
Whatever Spiteful fools may Say—
Each jealous, ranting yelper—
No woman ever played the whore
Unless She had a man to help her.
It appears that even during the Civil War, poetry kept Lincoln amused, as a verse which documents the North’s victory in the Battle of Gettysburg was written on July 18, 1863 and is in the collection titled “The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Supplement, 1832-1865 (Westport, Conn: Greeenwood Press, 1974).
Then it appears we have a long stretch without any poetry written by USA presidents until Jimmy Carter. President Carter is the first president to have written a novel titled “The Hornet’s Nest” (Simon & Schuster, 2003) as well as a collection of poetry titled “Always a Reckoning, and Other Poems” (New York: Times Books, 1995). However, Carter’s poetry is not well regarded and Yale Professor Harold Bloom stated that Carter is “literally the worst poet in the United States.”
Our current President Barack Obama has also dabbled in poetry while at Occidental College where he wrote two poems “Pop” and “Underground” in the 1982 issue of “Feast.” Though President Obama hasn’t kept up his poetry writing, he has incorporated poetry in presidential events such as his inaugurations as did President Kennedy, but President Obama has also had poetry events at the White House.
It’s fitting that President Obama stated on April 17, 2015:
“Poetry matters. Poetry, like all art, gives shape and texture and depth of meaning to our lives. It helps us know the world. It helps us understand ourselves. It helps us understand others, their struggles, their joys, the ways that they see the world. It helps us connect…
I think it’s fair to say that if we didn’t have poetry that this would be a pretty barren world. In fact, it’s not clear that we would survive without poetry.”
Now that is poetry to my ears!!