Seven Poetic Presidents

It’s voting time! In the spirit of the culmination of the presidential election tomorrow, below is a list that highlights historic presidents’ more poetic attributes. Ever wondered whose poetry Thomas Jefferson cozied up with? Or which past president favored the eccentric Welsh poet Dylan Thomas? Read on to find out…

George Washington and Phillis Wheatley

He was the first president of the United State, she was the first African-American woman to publish a collection of poetry. In 1776, she sent Washington a poem that praised the general’s leadership. In reply he told her that, were she ever in town, he would “be happy to see a person so favoured by the Muses.”

Now here, now there, the roving Fancy flies,
Till some lov’d object strikes her wand’ring eyes,
Whose silken fetters all the senses bind,
And soft captivity involves the mind.
Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Moore
Irish poet Thomas Moore was unimpressed with President Jefferson when he met him in the early 1800s, influenced by his friend, the British Minister to the States. Moore unkindly described Jefferson’s home as in a “state of uncleanly desolation.” But “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.”
I feel like one
Who treads alone
Some banquet-hall deserted,
Whose lights are fled,
Whose garlands dead,
And all but he departed!
John Quincy Adams and Christoph Martin Wieland
Turns out sixth president John Quincy Adams fancied himself a bit of a poet. In 1816 he declared, “Could I have chosen my own genius and condition, I would have made myself a great poet,” though he reconciled that his own poetry was “spell bound in the circle of mediocrity.” He fared better in translation, attempting to translate one of his favorite poets–Wieland–from German. Adams did abandon the attempt to translate the epic poem Oberon when he came across what he felt was a better translation. As a result it went unpublished until 1940.
Abraham Lincoln and Robert Burns
Lincoln so admired the poetry of Scotsman Robert Burns, he actually declined making a toast to the poet at a banquet in Burns’ honor, saying, “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.” Lincoln committed many of Burns’ poems, like the one below, to memory.
Ae night the storm the steeples rocked,
Poor Labour sweet in sleep was locked,
While burns, wi’ snawy wreeths upchoked,
Wild-eddying swirl,
Or thro’ the mining outlet bocked,
Down headlong hurl.
Harry S. Truman and Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Of all of Tennyson’s poems, one struck a particular cord with President Truman, so much so that he carried a copy of “Locksley Hall” in his wallet from the time he graduated high school in 1901 onwards.
“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.”
An excerpt of that same poem that meant so much to Truman:
Love took up the glass of Time, and turn’d it in his glowing hands;
Every moment, lightly shaken, ran itself in golden sands.
Love took up the harp of Life, and smote on all the chords with might;
Smote the chord of Self, that, trembling, pass’d in music out of sight.
John F. Kennedy and Robert Frost
The words spoken at JFK’s inauguration (“Ask not what your country can do for you…”) weren’t the only infamous lines read out that day. On January 20th, 1961, Robert Frost became the first poet to read at a presidential inauguration. The poet planned on reading out a poem he’d written especially for the occasion, “Dedication,” but as the bright afternoon sun bounced off of the freshly fallen snow surrounding the event, he found he couldn’t read his own handwriting at the podium. The 86 year-old then recited “The Gift Outright” from memory instead.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.
Jimmy Carter and Dylan Thomas
Not only is Carter a fan of Dylan Thomas’ work, this former president is a great advocate for the Welsh poet. He was the impetus behind the plaque dedicated to Thomas in Westminster Abbey’s “Poet’s Corner,” as well as Dylan Thomas Centre, a museum dedicated to the poet, in Swansea, Wales.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
For five more presidents’ poetic tendencies, including President Obama’s, head over to this Poetry Foundation article.

Shakespeare and Fry and Bly, Oh My! : Literary Quotes On Storms

At eNotes, we want all of our followers and customers to know we are thinking about you in the wake of Hurricane Sandy and wish everyone a speedy and safe recovery. Hopefully, you have power and can read this… but if your battery is running low, I hear there is a Starbucks on Broadway where you can charge up AND whose wifi is still working… See??

To cheer you up, we thought you might enjoy reading some insights from literature and writers about stormy weather. So here ya go.

1.  Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
Crack nature’s molds, all germens spill at once
That make ingrateful man!

King Lear, Act 3.2 by William Shakespeare

2.  Stephen Fry

Here are some obvious things about weather

It’s real.
You can’t change it by wishing it away.
If it’s dark and rainy it really is dark and rainy, you can’t alter it.
It might be dark and rainy for two weeks in a row.

BUT

It will be sunny one day.
It isn’t under one’s control as to when the sun comes out but it will.
One day.

3.  The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss

4.  “Why the Egyptian, Arabic, Abyssinian, Choctaw? Well, what tongue does the wind talk? What nationality is a storm? What country do rains come from? What color is lightning? Where does thunder go when it dies?” Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

5.  “Everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it.” ― Mark Twain

6.  “Tut, Tut, looks like rain.” Winne-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne 

7.  “A lot of people like snow. I find it to be an unnecessary freezing of water.” ~ Carl Reiner

8.  “After three days men grow weary, of a wench, a guest, and weather rainy.” ~ Benjamin Franklin

9.  In Rainy September by Robert Bly 

In rainy September when leaves grow down to the dark
I put my forehead down to the damp seaweed-smelling sand.
What can we do but choose? The only way for human beings
is to choose. The fern has no choice but to live;
for this crime it receives earth water and night.

And finally, at Number 10, a word from the coming year’s Farmer’s  Almanac 

“Flurries early, pristine and pearly. Winter’s come calling! Can we endure so premature a falling? Some may find this trend distressing- others bend to say a blessing over sage and onion dressing.”


A New Look at Emily Dickinson

Portrait of the poet Emily Dickinson at the age of sixteen. Property of Amherst College.

For years, scholars have had only one image of the enigmatic Emily Dickinson to go by–that of the poet as a sixteen year-old, taken in 1847 (above). In that time, observers have been unable to help themselves from forming certain ideas of the poet, given this picture of a heavy-lidded, pale, and fragile looking adolescent, coupled with her well-known depressive nature. However, it seems that a new discovery may serve to change our views.

That is, if the photograph below is truly the second portrait of Emily Dickinson known to date.

Could the woman on the left be Emily Dickinson, twelve years on from her famous daguerrotype above?

The picture recently surfaced in Dickinson’s hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts, and has been on loan with Amherst College (the owner of the first Dickinson daguerrotype) while it undergoes tests to determine its credibility. And what scrutinizing tests they are; the photograph has thus far been evaluated by historians, members of the Emily Dickinson International Society, and even an opthalmologist. The last, Susan Pepin, concluded in her report,

The two women have the same eye opening size with the right eye opening being slightly larger than the left. The left lower lid in both women sits lower than the right lower lid… The right earlobe is higher on both women. The inferonasal corneal light reflex suggests corneal curvature similarity, allowing us to speculate about similar astigmatism in the two women. Both women have a central hair cowlick. Finally, both women have a more prominent left nasolabial fold… After a thorough examination of both of these women’s facial features as viewed from the 1847 and 1859 daguerreotypes, I believe strongly that these are the same people.

Kate Turner, age sixty.

And she’s not the only one. Others at Amherst College, after comparing the fabric of the subject’s dress to swatches belonging to the Emily Dickinson Museum’s textile collection, feel strongly that she must be the famous poet.

Further forensic-style investigation was used to determine the second sitter in the photograph, Kate Scott Turner, which corroborates the conclusion that the image is of Dickinson. Turner, a recent widow at the time, met Dickinson in 1859. The two shared a strong relationship–which some have purported to have been more than mere friendship–until they suffered a parting of ways that deeply hurt Dickinson. In a letter to Kate circa 1860, the poet wrote, “Why did you enter, sister, since you must depart?” lamenting that loss of a close friend. Thankfully, multiple photographs of Turner exist in the world, as the ability to identify her as one of the subjects in the photo makes it more likely “that the other sitter who looks like Dickinson is Dickinson.”

But what exactly is the significance of finding a second portrait of Emily Dickinson, you may ask? It’s all in our perceptions of her. Reducing our image of her to a photograph of a waifish teenage girl, we’ve been short-sighted in our considerations of Dickinson as a grown woman. It seems impossible to believe that she could be so composed–strong, even–as we imagine her now, extending a protective arm to her far meeker looking friend.

If the daguerreotype is eventually accepted as Dickinson, it will change our idea of her, providing a view of the poet as a mature woman showing striking presence, strength, and serenity. She (whoever she is) seems to be the one in charge here, the one who decided that on a certain day in a certain year, she and her friend would have their likenesses preserved. In fact, even if this photograph is not of Dickinson and Turner, it has still been of use in forcing us to imagine Dickinson as an adult, past the age of the ethereal-looking 16-year-old we have known for so many years.

Tell us your views: is the image above, in your opinion, of Emily Dickinson? If so, does it change your perception of her? Leave us a comment below.


Newest Poet Laureate to Give Inaugural Reading

Natasha Trethewey, the United States’ 19th Poet Laureate, will give her first reading at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. this Thursday.

Trethewey became the national Poet Laureate in June of this year. The reading later this week will kickstart her duties in the role.

The “poet-historian,” as the Library of Congress describes her, was born and raised in the South, hailing from Gulfport, Mississipi, the state in which she currently holds another Poet Laureate title. Trethewey is also Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University in Atlanta. Besides teaching, the poet and author has published four collections since 2000 and one work of non-fiction, Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Her 2006 collection, Native Guard, won her the esteemed Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

Of her poetry, James Billington of the Library of Congress has said Trethewey

inter-mixes her story with the historical story in a way that takes you deep into the human tragedy of it. It is her ability to weave the present and the past, to engage the public and the personal, and to give language to the unsaid that makes Trethewey’s poems of such lasting import.

The history Billington references is Trethewey’s own family history, which her poetry relates to the “racial legacy of America” as a whole. At the time of her birth, Trethewey’s parents’ marriage wasn’t legally recognized; on Natasha’s birth certificate her mother’s ethnicity was recorded as “colored,” her father’s “Canadian.” The Supreme Court reversed anti-miscegenation laws a year later, but the impact of racial prejudice surely struck the future poet from a young age. Later, the family tragedy that was her mother’s murder further spurred Trethewey to become a poet, if anything to simply “make sense of what had happened.” Her mother’s life became the inspiration behind Native Guard, which is dedicated to her memory.

Perhaps one of the best examples of the weaving between present and past, public and personal stories, is found in the poem “Letter Home”:

I sit watching–

though I pretend not to notice–the dark maids

ambling by with their white charges. Do I deceive

anyone? Were they to see my hands, brown

as your dear face, they’d know I’m not quite

what I pretend to be. I walk these streets

a white woman, or so I think, until I catch the eyes

of some stranger upon me, and I must lower mine,

a negress again. There are enough things here

to remind me who I am.

For a preview of her upcoming reading, view the clip below recorded at Trethewey’s April 12th recitation at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago, courtesy of Poets & Writers magazine and the Dark Room Collective.


Happy Birthday Bukowski

bukowski3There are so many quotes I could draw from that would be emblematic of the character of Charles Bukowski, the larger-than-life poet, novelist, alcoholic, and “grim prophet of love.”

But today, on the day he would have turned 92, I choose “two nights before my 72nd birthday.” Written exactly two decades ago, shortly before his death of leukemia, the poem calmly, almost ambivalently, reflects on aging and death. Bukowski seems drained of all the lingering angst from his difficult childhood, only amazed at the fact he’s lasted this long and grateful for his glass of cabernet and the warm night. It’s pleasant to think of him admiring life’s simplicities, not really wanting or regretting, merely enjoying what would be his second-to-last birthday.

That night, I think, a secret bluebird gave a little whistle somewhere.

sitting here on a boiling hot night while
drinking a bottle of cabernet sauvignon
after winning $232 at the track.
there’s not much I can tell you except
if it weren’t for my bad right leg
I don’t feel much different than I did
30 or 40 years ago (except that
now I have more money and should be able
to afford a decent
burial). also,
I drive better automobiles and have
stopped carrying a
switchblade.
I am still looking for a hero, a role model,
but can’t find one.
I am no more tolerant of Humanity
than I ever was.
I am not bored with myself and find
that I am the only one I can
turn to in time of
crisis.
I’ve been ready to die for decades and
I’ve been practicing, polishing up
for that end
but it’s very
hot tonight
and I can think of little but
this fine cabernet,
that’s gift enough for me.
sometimes I can’t
believe I’ve come this far,
this has to be some kind of goddamned
miracle!
just another old guy
blinking at the forces,
smiling a little,
as the cities tremble and the left
hand rises,
clutching
something
real.

Happy Birthday Bukowski.


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