Poems That Influenced Our Presidents

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People who enjoy poetry have certain traits in common. Art: Tony DeLuz

In this presidential election year, NAU Professor Emeritus Paul J. Ferlazzo (American Literature) has published Poetry and the American Presidency (Peter Lang Publishing Inc., 2012), a timely book that gives the public a new way to understand the men who have held our nation’s highest office. Ferlazzo explores the poetry enjoyed, memorized, shared, and written by 18 United States (U.S.) Presidents—from George Washington to Barack Obama.

“An appreciation of poetry says something about the presidents themselves: It reveals a side of their personality that is often not publicly apparent but which can significantly shape their values and worldview.”

“The story of poetry in the lives of our presidents has never been told,” Ferlazzo says. “For example, did you know that both Abraham Lincoln and Jimmy Carter wrote poetry? That Teddy Roosevelt was a serious reader of poetry and even wrote essays about poetry … [and] that he found the means to financially support several struggling poets? 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

poems book coverFerlazzo explores the presidents’ poetic interests, offering select background information about their lives and some of the poems and themes they found memorable. He also suggests that an appreciation of poetry says something about the presidents themselves: It reveals a side of their personality that is often not publicly apparent but which can significantly shape their values and worldview.  For example, Ferlazzo believes that people who enjoy poetry have certain traits in common, 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 and
  • 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, many of the Presidents who enjoyed poetry appreciated the inspiration and lessons they received from verse and the practical—and sometimes romantic—importance of poetry in their lives. Thomas Jefferson, for example, was taken with poetry as a means of developing a personal philosophy and learning 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.”

 “When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations.” (John F. Kennedy)

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.”

To a greater or lesser degree, the U.S. Presidents who enjoyed poetry all believed it served a higher purpose and, for many, it helped to influence the direction of their public and private lives. 

--Sylvia Somerville