Presidential poetry

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Serving as the President of the United States requires an extraordinary commitment to a higher purpose. Understanding the men who have held the nation’s highest office is often no task: why make such an all-consuming sacrifice? And how do you get beyond the public persona to more fully understand the complex human being? Northern Arizona University Professor Emeritus Paul Ferlazzo may have an answer: poetry.

In this presidential election year, Ferlazzo has published Poetry and the American Presidency (Peter Lang Publishing Inc., 2012), a timely book that provides a new perspective on 18 of the men who have held the nation’s highest office. According to Ferlazzo, who specializes in American literature, U.S presidents who enjoyed the art form share one important commonality: they believed that poetry served a higher purpose, and for many, this belief helped to influence their public and private lives. And, from George Washington to Barack Obama, exploring the influence of poetry can help explain a lot.

“The story of poetry in the lives of our presidents has never been told,” Ferlazzo says. “Both Abraham Lincoln and Jimmy Carter wrote poetry. Teddy Roosevelt was a serious reader of poetry and even wrote essays about poetry. Woodrow Wilson, usually pictured as a serious and scholarly individual, was fond of limericks. He also wrote love poetry. So did George Washington. Harry Truman carried in his wallet an important poem (Tennyson’s ‘Locksley Hall’), and Gerald Ford’s life as a child was changed by memorizing a poem (‘If’ by Kipling).”

What a love of poetry may mean

In his book, Ferlazzo discusses the presidents’ poetic interests and the relationships between their lives and some of the poems and found memorable. He suggests that an appreciation of poetry reveals details about the presidents which are often not publicly apparent, but can significantly shape their values and worldviews.  For example, Ferlazzo believes that people who enjoy poetry have certain traits in common that are critical for Presidential success, such as:

  • a respect and love of language
  • an appreciation for clarity of thought expressed with precision and for the aesthetics of poetry’s formal elements
  • a willingness to be open to the emotional side of life and to analyze life experiences, inherited values, and the fundamental understanding of the nature of things
  • an ability to keep in mind two or more possibilities or alternatives and to be comfortable with ambiguity and complexity
  • a developed sense of intuition, creativity, sensibility, and imagination
  • a (formal or informal) education that includes reading, listening, and observing life with an open mind

“To a greater or lesser degree, these 18 presidents share in these important characteristics,” says Ferlazzo.  

Why U.S. presidents appreciated poetry

Beyond these commonalities, Ferlazzo says that many of the presidents who enjoyed poetry appreciated the inspiration they received from verse, and the practical importance of poetry in their lives. Thomas Jefferson, for example, used poetry to help develop a personal philosophy and to learn how to write and speak well.  Abraham Lincoln read poetry to remind himself of life’s larger issues, and to achieve a sense of inner peace. Teddy Roosevelt believed poetry was important to the development of culture, and Woodrow Wilson wrote in the Atlantic Monthly that “there is more of a nation’s politics to be gotten out of its poetry than out of all its systematic writers upon public affairs and constitutions.”

More recent presidents have also extolled the importance of poetry and even included poets at their inaugurations. In a convocation address he gave at Amherst College in 1963, John F. Kennedy said, “When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concerns, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.”