THE BLOG

Poetry & Politicians: For Better or Verse

Feb 16, 2009 | Updated May 25, 2011

Know as The Book Babes, Ellen Heltzel, a book critic who lives in Portland, and Margo Hammond, a book critic based in St. Petersburg, Fla., are authors of Between the Covers: The Book Babes' Guide to a Woman's Reading Pleasures (Da Capo Press). Their radio program airs monthly on WMNF-FM in Tampa. Check them out at www.thebookbabes.com.

Hey Margo,

The new year is starting right for at least one endangered species: people who love literature. First, of course, comes news from the National Endowment for the Arts that Johnny and Susie CAN read, after all. After years of survey showing a gradual decline in the nation's habit of reading fiction, a new study shows a glimmer of progress: Oprah's Book Club and "The Big Read" - by chance, an NEA initiative, but would I accuse the agency of patting itself on the back? - are among initiatives credited with helping reverse the trend. It's just a small upward blip, but in this economy, we need to celebrate anything that's pointed up.

Then comes another treat for us culture vultures: Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Although with that hair it's hard to think of Gov. B. as anything more than an Elvis impersonator, apparently he fancies himself a bard. And although the NEA study regretfully acknowledged no uptick in the appetite for poetry, maybe Blagojevich's habit of reciting poetry at his press conferences (Kipling, Tennyson) will push the public taste toward verse, as well. It beats spewing the expletives for which the guv is also known.

The prospect of mating poetry and public figures sent me to my book shelves. Why bother with a speechwriter when we have such time-honored turns of phrase as "the fog comes on little cat feet" or "the bell tolls for thee"?

For instance, here's how I'd dress up George Bush's final address to the nation this week:
No more be grieved at that which thou has done (in Iraq, particularly).
Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud.
Clouds and eclipses stain both moon and sun,
And loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud...
(William Shakespeare, Sonnet XXXV)

Hillary Clinton admitting she had even loftier aspirations during her confirmation hearings for Secretary of State:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both (especially the one that would have made ME president)
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could...
(Robert Frost, "The Road Not Taken")

Gov. Bill Richardson, lamenting the fact that he will not be confirmed as Secretary of Commerce:
I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise...
(Jane Kenyon, "Otherwise")

As for Barack Obama, what better words than these for his inaugural address:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world...
(W.B. Yeats, "The Second Coming")

Hey Ellen,

"You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose," Mario Cuomo once said. But what's a politico to do in defeat? Sarah Palin could ponder that other infamous line from Yeats' "The Second Coming": "The best lack all convictions, while the worse/
Are full of passionate intensity."

And here are some more lyrical lines that her fellow Republicans would do well to contemplate during their years in opposition:

For Dick Cheney:
"If any question why we died
Tell them, because our fathers lied."
(Rudyard Kipling, "Common Form")

For Karl Rove:
"Oh, what a tangled web we weave
When first we practice to deceive!"
(Sir Walter Scott, "Marmion")

For John McCain:
"You and I are old; old age hath yet its honor and its toil.
Death closes all; but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men who strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks;
The long day wantes; the slow moon climbs; the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world."
(Alfred Lord Tennyson, "Ulysses")

For Newt Gingrich:
"To the man-in-the-street, who, I'm sorry to say,
is a keen observer of life,
The word 'Intellectual' suggests straight away
A man who's untrue to his wife."
(W.H. Auden, "New Year Letter")

For Jeb Bush
"They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you."
(Philip Larkin, "This Be the Verse")

For Larry Craig and Mark Foley:
"As I grow older and older,
And totter toward the tomb,
I find that I care less and less
Who goes to bed with whom."
(Attributed to Dorothy Sayers in Janet Hitchman's "Such a Strange Lady")

For James Dobson
"The old order changeth, yielding place to new.
And God fulfills himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world."
(Alfred Lord Tenneyson, "Idylls of the King")

For Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader John Boehner:
"They join in hand, brave Americans all.
By uniting we stand, by dividing we fall."
(John Dickenson, "The Liberty Song")