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.
I feel like oneWho treads aloneSome banquet-hall deserted,Whose lights are fled,Whose garlands dead,And all but he departed!
Ae night the storm the steeples rocked,
Poor Labour sweet in sleep was locked,
While burns, wi’ snawy wreeths upchoked,
Or thro’ the mining outlet bocked,
Down headlong hurl.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
At eNotes this month, we are taking some time to remember two great American poets: Lucille Clifton and Robert Frost. Clifton passed away on February 17, 2010, and March 26 marked Frost’s birthday. Seldom have two writers articulated their view of the United States in such unique and memorable ways.
Lucille Clifton’s often highly personal poems focused on what it was like to be an African-American woman living in the twentieth century. Her voice has been characterized as “earthy” and reminiscent of the “rhythms of the black oral tradition.” One of her poems that embodies all three of these characteristics is “The Lost Baby“:
the time i dropped your almost body down
down to meet the waters under the city
and run one with the sewage to the sea
what did i know about waters rushing back
what did i know about drowning
or being drowned
you would have been born in winter
in the year of the disconnected gas
and no car
we would have made the thin walk
over the genecy hill into the canada winds
to let you slip into a stranger’s hands
if you were here i could tell you
these and some other things
and if i am ever less than a mountain
for your definite brothers and sisters
let the rivers wash over my head
let the sea take me for a spiller of seas
let black men call me stranger always
for your never named sake
Clifton’s collection of poems Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir, 1969-1980 was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. Twelve years later, in 2000, Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems, 1988-2000 won a National Book Award.
Like Clifton, Robert Frost too also wrote of the American experience, but from the vantage point of a white New Englander. However, where Clifton is typically sparse and direct, Frost’s poems are frequently long and colloquial. And while he is often thought of as America’s kindly grandfather poet, in fact, Frost could be quite dark and brooding. For example, consider his poem “Acquainted With the Night“:
I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain — and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.
I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.
I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,
But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
A luminary clock against the sky
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.
Robert Frost won the Pulitzer Prize four times:
- 1924 for New Hampshire: A Poem With Notes and Grace Notes
- 1931 for Collected Poems
- 1937 for A Further Range
- 1943 for A Witness Tree
Frost died on January 29, 1963. He was 89 years old.