December 12, 2009

A History of Odes to the Chief

When President Obama flew to Oslo last week to collect his Nobel Peace Prize, his in-flight reading probably did not include the British poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy’s new poem “The Twelve Days of Christmas 2009.”

The poem, published in the magazine Radio Times, begins with a buzzard not in a pear tree in Afghanistan and ends at the climate conference in Copenhagen, with a call for world leaders to heed the drummers drumming for action against global warming. Along the way, Ms. Duffy drops a couplet that may have left the president’s press team scratching its head:

I bought a magic goose from a jolly farmer.
This goose laid Barack Obama.

Irreverent stuff, but the history of poems about American presidents isn’t without its odd moments.

There are presidential poems in the full-throated heroic mode (think of Whitman’s ode to Lincoln, “O Captain! My Captain!”) and protest poems like Robert Bly’s “Johnson’s Cabinet Watched by Ants.”

But another school of White House verse features presidents that no one cares that much about anymore, notable for their forgettable rhetoric, ridiculous facial hair and general air of absurdity. Who knew Warren G. Harding would be such a muse?

The heroic school of presidential poetry goes back to George Washington, who was saluted by Byron, William Cullen Bryant and James Russell Lowell, along with countless 19th-century schoolchildren, swept up in the post-Civil War cult of the great unifier. (Though such versifying was not without its challenges: “Nothing but ‘Washington’ rhymed with ‘Washington,’ ” the immigrant rights activist Mary Antin recalled in her memoir “The Promised Land.”)

Byron, in “Washington,” rhapsodized thusly:

Where may the wearied eye repose
When gazing on the Great;
Where neither guilty glory grows
Nor despicable state?
Yes — one — the first — the last — the best —
The Cincinnatus of the West,
Whom envy dared not hate,
Bequeathed the name of Washington,
To make men blush there was but one!

The high-water mark of American presidential poetry, most agree, was Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” written shortly after Lincoln’s assassination (in an email message, Robert Pinsky called Whitman’s more classroom-friendly “O Captain! My Captain!” “pretty cornball” and “not very good”):

When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night
I mourn’d—and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

James Garfield, assassinated in 1881, fared less well, prompting a mere six lines from Whitman, along with more florid outpourings like this one from John Wesley Crouter:

He stood unmindful of his doom.
In conscious strength, manly, serene;
When fragrant flowers were in bloom
He fell — then horror enwraps the scene
James A. Garfield has gone to his last resting place,
No more on earth we’ll hear his voice, or see his face

Laura Richards, the abolitionist Juliet Ward Howe’s daughter, published a nonsense poem about the corruption of Ulysses S. Grant in St. Nicholas’s Magazine for children:

Oh, Pillykin Willykin Winky Wee!
How does the President take his tea?
He takes it in bed, he takes it in school,
He takes it in Congress against the rule.
He takes it with brandy, and thinks it no sin.
Oh, Punkydoodle and Jollapin!

Rutherford B. Hayes was immortalized — sort of — in James Haug’s “A Day Like Any Other,” published in the Gettysburg Review in 2006:

When Rutherford B. Hayes comes to town,
Squirrels are charmed out of the eaves.
The editor breaks down and sobs.
His unrecorded remarks fill the air.

The most poetical of the lesser presidents may be Warren G. Harding, commemorated by John Ashbery (“Poor Warren. He wasn’t a bad egg,/ Just weak. He loved women and Ohio”), and by James Wright in “Two Poems about President Harding,” which takes a dimmer view:

America goes on, goes on
Laughing, and Harding was a fool.
Even his big pretentious stone
Lays him bare to ridicule.

(As for Harding’s successor, Calvin Coolidge, his wife wrote and published poetry, but apparently not about her husband.)

In the 20th and 21st centuries, Republican presidents have tended to draw the sharper end of the poetic stick, with the notable exception of the Democrat Lyndon Johnson. Robert Lowell’s “Inauguration Day, 1953” ends: “... the Republic summons Ike,/The mausoleum in her heart.” Carolyn Kizer’s “Election Day 1984” begins, “Did you ever see someone coldcock a blind nun?” Reams of verse have been written about George W. Bush. Much of it is forgettable, according to Stephen Burt, an associate professor of English at Harvard — “not because political poems are flimsier than other kinds of poems, but just because most poems won’t last, full stop.”

So how will Obama be remembered by poets? So far, he seems to have invited a combination of the heroic and bemused schools, perhaps best embodied in the blog Starting Today, which posted a new poem on each of the president’s first 100 days in office. A forthcoming anthology of the blog, edited by Arielle Greenberg and Rachel Zucker, includes Susan Wheeler’s “Song of the G-20 Gone,” which imagines Obama’s reaction to his wife’s spontaneous embrace of Queen Elizabeth — an act of good old American chutzpah that Carol Ann Duffy might admire.

It was time for the queen to be touched so
Don’t worry, Michelle, my love —
It was pre-ordained: your touch, and
You as His shill and glove.

What would Cromwell once have made
Of your touch that drew the drape
And showed her there, that sad old gal,
Toting the box and the crepe.