The grand Canadian poet, Alden Nowlan, was once asked the worth of poetry. What good is it? What does it do? He no doubt had many answers, but the time I am referring to he said (I paraphrase) "You can never know how poetry will affect a person. And if that person is powerful, you can't know how poetry will affect that person's resulting deeds."
So, here is a list of twelve presidents and the poets they admired.
(And - of course I do wonder - did any presidents read Kafka?)
Abraham Lincoln and Robert Burns
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On the eve of the presidential election, we’ve matched 12 commanders-in-chief with the poets that inspired them.
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.