Essay

Poetic Presidents

We’ve matched 12 commanders-in-chief with the poets that inspired them.

by Elizabeth Harball
Poetic Presidents

The following article was first published on October 31, 2012.

Politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose, former New York governor Mario Cuomo once said. While it’s debatable whether this epically long and tumultuous election cycle has inspired much verse, we at the Poetry Foundation would like to think that poetry has its place at the White House regardless of who emerges as the victor on November 6.

We’ve taken a look at American presidents throughout history and compiled a list of 12 commanders-in-chief and their favorite poets. Given the makeup of U.S. presidents thus far, the heavily male lineup doesn’t shock. Neither does the fact that presidents tend to be intimidated by poets (or secretly want to be poets) or that poets can be petty enough to make snide remarks about a president’s housekeeping. But we’re still holding out for a surprise: perhaps if the Republican candidate prevails, he’ll reveal his love for the Belle of Amherst or another poet from the state he used to govern.

George Washington and Phillis Wheatley

An educated African slave, Phillis Wheatley became the first African American woman to publish a collection of poetry, with the book appearing in 1773. Three years later, she sent a poem she wrote to George Washington that celebrated the general’s leadership. Washington wrote back to praise her “great poetical Talents” and told Wheatley that should she ever visit Cambridge, Massachusetts, he would “be happy to see a person so favoured by the Muses.”

Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Moore

Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Moore

During a visit to America in 1804, Irish poet Thomas Moore met with the British Minister and his wife, who were not happy with the president, in Washington. They complained, Moore later told his mother, that Jefferson treated the couple with “pointed incivility” and “petty hostility.” Later, the British Minister introduced Moore to the president, but Moore, perhaps still influenced by his friends, remained unimpressed; he wrote that the “president’s house” was in a “state of uncleanly desolation.” Years later, when Jefferson read Moore’s poetry, he exclaimed, “Why, this is the little man who satirized me so! Why, he is a poet after all!” Moore became one of Jefferson’s favorite poets.

John Quincy Adams and Christoph Martin Wieland

“Could I have chosen my own genius and condition, I would have made myself a great poet,” John Quincy Adams wrote in 1816. But even he recognized that his poetry was “spell bound in the circle of mediocrity.” He had a little more success in the field of translation. During an 1800 trip to Germany, Adams was so taken with Christoph Martin Wieland’s epic poem Oberon that he decided he had to translate it. When he finished, Adams discovered another translation he felt was better than his own, so he set his work aside. It remained unpublished until 1940.

Abraham Lincoln and Robert Burns

Like Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln adored poetry. Lincoln was especially fond of Scottish poet Robert Burns, and committed many of his poems to memory. In 1865 Lincoln was invited to give a toast at a banquet honoring the poet, but he declined, writing: “I cannot frame a toast to Burns. I can say nothing worthy of his generous heart and transcending genius. Thinking of what he has said, I can not say anything which seems worth saying.”

Theodore Roosevelt and Edwin Arlington Robinson

Roosevelt so liked Edwin Arlington Robinson’s work that he invited him to dine at the White House in 1905, and later helped to provide the destitute poet with a job at the New York Customs House. In a letter to his son Kermit, Roosevelt wrote: “I am much struck by Robinson's two poems which you sent Mother. What a queer, mystical creature he is! … He certainly has got the real spirit of poetry in him.”

Photo of Anthony Euwer courtesy of Redpath Chautauqua Bureau Collection, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City, Iowa.

Woodrow Wilson and Anthony Euwer

Woodrow Wilson was famously fond of reading and writing limericks. When the future president was speaking to a large crowd in Jersey City in 1908, a man heckled him and shouted, “You ain’t no beaut.” Wilson responded with this limerick by Anthony Euwer:

For beauty I am not a star;
There are others handsomer, far;
But my face, I don't mind it,
For I am behind it;
‘Tis the people in front that I jar.

The incident received so much press that the limerick is often misattributed to Wilson.

Harry S. Truman and Alfred, Lord Tennyson

From the time he graduated from high school in 1901, Harry S. Truman carried a fragment of Lord Tennyson’s poem “Locksley Hall” in his wallet. “The paper I copied it on kept wearing out, and I kept recopying it. I don’t know how many times, twenty or thirty, I expect,” Truman reportedly told the journalist Merle Miller, adding that he “had a lot more faith in poets than reporters.”

John F. Kennedy and Robert Frost

Robert Frost was the first poet to read at a presidential inauguration. Soon after John F. Kennedy uttered the famous words "Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country," Frost took the podium, intending to read “Dedication,” a poem he had written especially for the occasion. But the bright sun reflecting off the January snow made it impossible for the 86-year-old poet to read his own writing, so he recited “The Gift Outright,” from memory, instead.

Gerald Ford and Rudyard Kipling

Gerald Ford was prone to fits of anger as a young man. After a particularly bad tantrum, his mother, Dorothy Ford, made him memorize Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem “If—.” “It will help you control that temper of yours,” she said. The poem begins: “If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you …” Like Kipling, Ford was a devoted member of the Freemasons.

Jimmy Carter and Dylan Thomas

Jimmy Carter is a great advocate of Dylan Thomas’s poetry. Upon discovering that there was no memorial to Thomas in Westminster Abbey’s “Poet’s Corner,” Carter launched a successful campaign to install a plaque there for the poet. Carter later opened the Dylan Thomas Centre, a museum dedicated to the poet, in Swansea, Wales.

Bill Clinton and Seamus Heaney

The title of Bill Clinton’s memoir, Between Hope and History, is taken from Seamus Heaney’s play The Cure at Troy, which the president read while visiting Ireland in 1995. He used an excerpt in a speech delivered in Derry, and Heaney later presented him with a handwritten copy. Clinton has called the poet “a gift to the people of Ireland and to the world and a gift to me in difficult times.” He has also joked that his Labrador retriever, Seamus, is named after Heaney.

Barack Obama and Elizabeth Alexander

The chair of African American studies at Yale, Elizabeth Alexander is a friend of Barack Obama’s—they were on the faculty together at the University of Chicago in the 1990s—and at his 2009 inauguration she read "Praise Song for the Day," which she had written for the occasion. Decades earlier, Alexander attended another auspicious occasion at the Washington Mall, albeit in a stroller; she was a year old when her parents brought her to hear Martin Luther King Jr. give his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963. “To think that here, in that same space in Washington, D.C., we’re going to be at a quite different moment,” Alexander said in a PBS interview before the inauguration, “is a beautiful circle.”

Originally Published: October 31, 2012

COMMENTS (4)

On November 2, 2012 at 2:24pm Paul Ferlazzo wrote:
Interesting article. May I suggest my book for those looking to get a more complete and detailed picture of our presidents who loved poetry: POETRY AND THE AMERICAN PRESIDENCY, published by Peter Lang in April 2012. Eighteen presidents from Washington to Obama are discussed in the book--those who read and those who wrote poetry.

On November 6, 2012 at 10:50am marilee pittman wrote:
Interesting! You know they look alike too...

On November 12, 2012 at 6:09am Stephen Verges wrote:
I don't know what to think of your article. It made me gut sick to
think, and not just any thinking gut sick, but an early morning gut sick
from reading meretricious nonsense. Washington ... do you think he
ever asked his slaves if they needed some good old muse time. Several
feet of intestinal collapse thanks to that thought. I feel slightly better
reading how much of a scumbag Thomas Jefferson was to Moore, with
a better understanding that Jefferson and Sally Hemmings had been
dog styling ala vis a vis in a filthy house. Grand work on Adams and
Lincoln. Roosevelt ... oh no. You even have that poser in his Brooks
Brothers "Rough Riders" outfit. Buffalo soldiers saved Roosevelt:

Kettle Hill was a smaller part of the San Juan Heights with San Juan Hill
20.0200185°N 75.7982129°W and its main blockhouses being the
highest point with a dip or draw in between the two hills on a north-
south axis.

The heights are located about a mile east of Santiago. Elements of the
10th Cavalry ("black" regulars) took Kettle Hill on the American right
with assistance from Col. Theodore Roosevelt's 1st Volunteer Cavalry
(Rough Riders) and the entire 3rd Cavalry ("white" regulars).

Most of the 10th supported by elements of the 24th and 25th colored
infantry on the left took San Juan Hill.

The 10th had held the center position between the two hills and when
they went forward they split toward the tops of the two hills.

Lieutenant Ord started the regulars forward on the American left and
Roosevelt claimed he started the charge on the right.

Retreating Spanish troops withdrew toward San Juan Hill still being
contested. The regulars fired toward them and supported their
comrades fighting on the adjacent hill.

A legend was started that the Rough Riders alone took Kettle Hill, but
this is not true.

Sergeant George Berry (10th Cavalry) took his unit colors and that of
the 3rd Cavalry to the top of Kettle Hill before the Rough Rider's flag
arrived.

This is supported in the writings of John Pershing who fought with the
10th on Kettle Hill and later led the American Expeditionary Force
during the First World War

Fug your photo of a "Brooks Brothers Boasting Bitch" and his love for
poetry too.

The pencil line lipped Wilson ... call the doctor.

"The Haberdasher of Hiroshima", tut tut tut, I think many people
would question if the man knew a poem from a rubber toy turd.

JFK, intestinal yawn, but still, guts are churning like the making of
butter.

Maybe I was sick because you didn't list Vlad the Impaler or John
Wayne Gacy as Bush senior and junior's favorite poets.

Ford, Carter, Clinton, Obama ... brace myself for the anti-intellectuals
and jokes about poetry. Humor cures gut sickness ... you've cured me
at last!

On November 25, 2012 at 5:53pm Iliaz wrote:
I like that answer, Saeed. Not only does it have a leovly symmetry, but I think it enjoys the virtue of being right.Successful poems (in whatever form) seem to derive their special power from the tension between the interior, private allegiances of the heart and exterior demands of the world. We creep along with our feelings in the dark. What the successful poem finds is the intersection between the two, where the flint strikes the steel. That is where the poet strikes a spark.

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Biography

Elizabeth Harball holds a Master of Science from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She is the 2012 Poetry Foundation Journalism Fellow.

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