AP story (July 1996) on poetry and politics

Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) JULY 25, 1996 _ When Bob Dole became a full-time presidential candidate, he borrowed a flourish from the prairie socialist, poet Carl Sandburg. "Yesterday is a wind gone down,'' Dole recited at the close of his farewell speech to the Senate. "A sun dropped in the West. "I tell you that there is nothing in the world. Only an ocean of tomorrows. A sky of tomorrows.'' Score one for the poets, those overlooked observers of the American scene.

Candidates have their focus groups and pollsters to tell them what ordinary people think, their ad people and consultants to burnish the image, the think-tanks and advisers to tune the issues. Even psychics get some respect. But those who size up America artfully in verse live down a road less traveled. No longer the "unacknowledged legislators of the world,'' as Britain's Percy Bysshe Shelley called them more than 150 years ago, poets are mainly just unacknowledged _ here for presidential inaugurations, then gone.

"I don't want anything to do with poets,'' Lyndon Johnson is said to have ordered aides after one came to the White House and criticized the Vietnam War. "Don't bring me any poets.'' It's not as if they have nothing to say.

For Jonathan Williams, "boobus americanus hath swept the boards.'' Poets don't hear America singing much anymore. Sandburg's ocean of tomorrows seems to have dried into a cracked and dusty plain. "Worstward Ho,'' writes Anselm Hollo, one of the poets in the bleak new anthology "American Poets Say Goodbye to the 20th Century.'' And good riddance, they might have added. Galway Kinnell, the Pulitzer Prize-winner whose "Vapor Trail Reflected in the Frog Pond'' was one of the most famous poems of the Vietnam war era, welcomed Dole's use of poetry. "It's good for Dole to be doing that,'' Kinnell said from Vermont. ""By saying poetry of some kind of tenderness and concern, you acquire a little bit.''

"Good poets are always saying two things at once,and often they are contradictory things,'' said Bill Wadsworth, executive director of the Academy of American Poets. "The problem with bad poetry is that the writer is trying to simplify things to a message, in which case he can get a bumper sticker,'' Kinnell agrees, saying anti-war poetry from the era that made him so celebrated has not worn well.

Three decades before Bill Clinton asked Maya Angelou to read at his inauguration, John F. Kennedy summoned Robert Frost to usher in his presidency. Because of the sun's glare, the old poet was unable to make out the words of the dedication he had written forthte occasion. Instead he recited "The Gift Outright'' from memory. "A golden age of poetry and power'' the unread poem concluded. "Of which this noonday's the beginning hour.''


Document URL: http://www.english.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88/dole-and-poets.html
Last modified: Wednesday, 18-Jul-2007 16:25:37 EDT