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
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.”