Thursday, April 7, 2016

If only the 2016 campaign could rise to poetry -- April 7, 2016 column


It’s National Poetry Month, so let us praise politicians who campaign in poetry in 2016.

Anyone . . . Anyone?

In the 1980s, Mario Cuomo could say without irony: “You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose.”

Obviously, Cuomo couldn’t have imagined today’s presidential contest when he made the distinction between the lofty words that inspire voters and the gritty compromises needed to make policy.

In January, the prospects for poetry in the campaign looked promising. When Bernie Sanders launched his brilliant ad using Simon and Garfunkel’s “America,” Hillary Clinton said she loved it.

“We need a lot more poetry in this campaign and in our country,” she told Chris Cuomo of CNN at a Democratic town hall in Iowa. “So I applaud that. I love the feeling. I love the energy.”

The feel-good feeling didn’t last. The campaign soon devolved from poetry to a coarse limerick.

Rare in 2016 is the presidential candidate who appeals to what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature. Two exceptions: Democrat Martin O’Malley, who was given to recitations of Irish poetry, and Republican John Kasich, who stays more cheerful than combative in a campaign marked by insults, anger and ridicule.

We know how far quoting Eavan Boland by heart took O’Malley. We’ll see whether Kasich can parlay civility and thoughtfulness into anything higher than third place. Donald J. Trump’s wordsmithing begins and ends with taunts --“Lyin’ Ted,” meet “Low-energy Jeb.”

It wasn’t always like this.

“Our nation’s first great politicians were also among the nation’s first great writers and scholars,” then-Sen. John F. Kennedy recounted in a 1956 commencement address at Harvard, his alma mater. “Books were their tools, not their enemies.” He himself won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1957 for “Profiles in Courage.”

Americans’ appreciation for poetry is reflected in the fact that 42 states and the federal government have poets laureate.

The Virginia state Senate in February invited Virginia poet laureate James Ronald Smith, who teaches at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, to read a poem on the Senate floor.

Margaret Britton Vaughn received a lifetime appointment as Tennessee’s poet laureate in 1996. Alabama poet laureate Andrew Glaze died in February at the age of 95.

The term of the U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera ends in May. Several presidents, starting with JFK, have invited poets to read at their inaugurations.

We celebrate National Poetry Month because the American Academy of Poets decided in 1996 that poetry should have its own month the way black history and women’s history do. It’s grown into the largest literary celebration in the world, the academy says.

At a poetry month celebration at the White House last April, President Barack Obama said: “The greatness of a country is not just the size of its military, or the size of its economy, or how much territory it controls. It’s also measured by the richness of its culture.”

And, Obama said, “If you want to understand America, then you better read some Walt Whitman. If you want to understand America, you need to know Langston Hughes.”

The Library of Congress website has a Presidents as Poets area with information on eight presidents who wrote poetry at some point in their lives, starting with George Washington’s “anguished love poems,” through Obama. Obama had two poems published in the literary magazine at Occidental College when he was an undergraduate.

Asked by The New Yorker in 2007 to evaluate Obama’s work, the estimable Yale literary critic Harold Bloom said one poem was “not bad – a good enough folk poem with some pathos and humor and affection.”

Bloom was less charitable toward published poet Jimmy Carter, calling him, “literally the worst poet in the United States.”

In his 1956 commencement speech, JFK told a story about an English mother who wrote her son’s school: “Don’t teach my boy poetry; he is going to stand for Parliament.”

“Well, perhaps she was right,” Kennedy said, “but if more politicians knew poetry, and more poets knew politics, I am convinced the world would be a little better place to live.”

I agree, but we need not wait for the politicians. April 21 is Poem in Your Pocket Day, when people find a poem they love and carry it with them to share. What’s yours?

©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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