Former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo famously said that “you campaign in poetry; you govern in prose” to contrast the difference between the soaring rhetoric of a candidate and the workaday efforts of an elected official.
That’s even more true this April, which is both National Poetry Month and the likely kickoff of presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, among others.
Here’s a look at six poems the candidates might want to read.
“I Hear America Singing”
by Walt Whitman
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work…
Walt Whitman briefly worked as an editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, not too far from where Hillary Clinton’s campaign headquarters will be located. Although not overtly political, his poem “I Hear America Singing” celebrates blue-collar jobs, a staple of campaign rhetoric. Throw in a few clips of Iowa farmers and this could be the voiceover of a positive ad.
“Next to of course god america i”
by e.e. cummings
next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims’ and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn’s early my
country ’tis of centuries come and go…
On the other end of the spectrum, e.e. cummings’ “Next to of course god america i” is a parody of typical campaign rhetoric, mashing together various patriotic cliches. The sardonic final line — “He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water” — brings to mind Marco Rubio, who famously took a swig of Poland Spring in the middle of his response to the 2013 State of the Union.
by Denise Duhamel
I can promise you this: food in the White House
will change! No more granola, only fried eggs
flipped the way we like them. And ham ham ham!
Americans need ham! …
Less bitter than cummings’ take on political rhetoric, Denise Duhamel’s humorous 1961 poem is a nice palate cleanser for voters who are tired of hearing the candidates make false boasts and empty promises. Frankly, whoever can say “I am the only candidate to canoe over Niagara Falls / and live to photograph the Canadian side” gets our vote.
“Let America Be America Again”
by Langston Hughes
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free…
There’s some risk for candidates who borrow a turn of phrase from a poet. Conservatives criticized John Kerry for using the opening line as an unofficial campaign slogan in 2004, while Rick Santorum backed away from it during the 2012 campaign, in both cases because of the Communist leanings of poet Langston Hughes. Another line in the poem—”America never was America to me”—also undercuts political use of the poem.
“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”
by Robert Frost
…The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
At the 1964 Democratic National Convention, Robert Kennedy cited this Robert Frost poem as a favorite of his late brother, President John F. Kennedy, arguing that it “could apply it to the Democratic Party and to all of us as individuals.” It’s also pretty good inspiration for the poor candidate trudging along the campaign trail, making promises to voters.
“September 1, 1939”
by W.H. Auden
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
Written during the early days of World War II, W.H. Auden’s dark poem gained new resonance in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. It also played a role in one of the most famous political ads in history, Lyndon Johnson’s “Daisy,” which ends with a nuclear explosion and a brief excerpt from a speech in which LBJ paraphrases the line: “We must either love each other, or we must die.”
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