April is National Poetry Month. Perhaps you already knew that, but it might surprise you to learn how many U.S. presidents penned poems of their own.
Also, many presidents who didn’t try their hand at verse cherished various poems and poets. Shakespeare has been a fan favorite in the Oval Office, which is fitting for at least three reasons that come to mind.
First, Shakespeare is always sound. Second, the bard was born in April 1564, and though his precise birthday is uncertain, it is celebrated around the world on today’s date. Third, not coincidentally, it was on April 23, 1932 that Washington’s new Folger Shakespeare Library was dedicated.
The economy wasn’t doing any better that spring than it is today, but President Herbert Hoover and first lady Lou Hoover rose to the occasion by attending the ceremonies. The keynote speaker was Joseph Quincy Adams Jr., a man who taught English literature at Cornell and was a descendent of John Adams and John Quincy Adams. This Adams heir was a Shakespeare aficionado, as was John Quincy Adams. Professor Adams proudly told the assembled guests and dignitaries that America’s capital city now had three monuments honoring three giants: Washington, Lincoln, Shakespeare. Having many more shrines to choose from, we don’t quite see it that way today, although I am put in mind of Tallulah Bankhead’s great quip, “There have been only two authentic geniuses in the world, Willie Mays and Willie Shakespeare.” But I digress.
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As with everything presidential, the story of poems and presidents begins with George Washington. As a teenager, it seems, young George wrote love poems, two of which survive. I won’t besmirch the great man’s reputation by repeating them here, but if the lockdown has made you stir crazy the Library of Congress has reprinted them online.
Modern presidents have also taken a turn at the bard’s craft. As an Occidental College undergraduate in 1981, Barack Obama submitted two poems to his school’s literary magazine. This came to light when he ran for president in 2007-2008 and inquiring minds wanted to know: Was his stuff any good? Literary merit being a highly subjective arena, New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead sought out the great Yale professor Harold Bloom for an answer.
“After studying the poems,” Mead wrote, “he said that he was not unimpressed with the young man’s efforts -- at least, by the standards established by other would-be bards within the political sphere.”
Now there’s a low bar, but Bloom wasn’t through. “At 18, as an undergraduate, he was already a much better poet than our former Secretary of Defense William Cohen, who keeps publishing terrible poetry,” added the gruff Yale professor. “And then there is Jimmy Carter, who is in my judgment literally the worst poet in the United States.”
Well, that seems unduly harsh, but literary critics are a tough crowd. In 1995, when Carter’s
“Always a Reckoning and Other Poems” was published, New York Times book reviewer Michiko Kakutani panned it. Carter’s volume she said, was full of “well-meaning, dutifully wrought poems that plod from Point A to Point B without ever making a leap into emotional hyperspace, poems that lack not only a distinctive authorial voice, but also anything resembling a psychological or historical subtext.”
Well, I read that book myself, and I know what she means. The overtly political poems, rendered in free verse, are predictable and occasionally tedious. And yet, the former president put his heart into these poems and I’d suggest by way of rebuttal that his readers were able to supply the historical subtext themselves. Also, I found “Difficult Times,” a single-stanza poem in that book, to be poignant and powerful. As the old saying about differences of opinion goes, “That’s what makes horse races.”
Fine, you say, but you still want to know: Who is the best of the president-poets? I put that very question to White House historian Lina Mann and her answer made my day. “Best poet?” she said. “I don’t know, but I can tell you my personal favorite: Abraham Lincoln!”
That’s unsurprising, as Lincoln was our best prose stylist as president, but delightful to hear. As a teenager, he wrote verses poking fun at poetry -- and himself -- in his math book:
Abraham Lincoln is my name
And with my pen I wrote the same
I wrote in both hast and speed
and left it here for fools to read
As a young lawyer, Lincoln wrote serious poetry about his boyhood home. As president, he wrote a jaunty and triumphant little ditty about Robert E. Lee’s unsuccessful invasion of Pennsylvania:
Gen. Lees invasion of the North written by himself –
In eighteen sixty three, with pomp,
and mighty swell,
Me and Jeff's Confederacy, went
forth to sack Phil-del,
The Yankees they got arter us, and
giv us particular hell,
And we skedaddled back again
At the same time, war is a serious business, which Lincoln knew as well as anyone. Lina Mann recalled that Lincoln was enamored of Shakespeare’s tragedies, particularly “Macbeth,” and he quoted lines from that play to his staff after The Battle of the Wilderness.
Personally speaking, when I think of poems and presidents, I think of one written about Lincoln, not by him. The author was his secret admirer, Walt Whitman, who spoke for a nation (or, at least, half of it) when he wrote after the war to end slavery had concluded successfully -- with the martyred Lincoln as its last casualty:
“O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather'd every rack, the prize we sought is won;”
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.