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Poetry vs. Prose in the Presidential Campaign?

By February 14, 2008

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Last year we took note of the discovery of two poems written by a young Barack Obama and published in the Occidental College literary magazine 26 years ago:

The New Yorker even asked a prominent critic and professor to consider the literary value of those poems: And lately, it seems that many pundits and political bloggers are talking about the campaigns for the U.S. parties’ Presidential nominations in terms of poetry vs. prose:
  • from The Huffington Post:
    Presidential Politics: Prose/Poetry?, by Jamie Stiehm (December 2007)
    “Political differences between Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama seem small next to a starker contrast: the way they ‘use their words.’”

  • from The Washington Post:
    Candidate Watch: Poetry versus Prose, by Michael Dobbs (January 2008)
    “Poetry candidates talk about hope; prose candidates emphasize experience. Poetry candidates synthesize their message; prose candidates draw up laundry lists. Poetry candidates campaign on a story and a personal narrative; prose candidates campaign on their records. Poetry candidates focus on ‘tomorrow’ rather than ‘yesterday.’ With prose candidates, the emphasis is usually the other way around.”

  • from The New Republic:
    Poetry vs. Prose, by E.J. Dionne, Jr. (January 2008)
    “Hillary Clinton may have unintentionally written the obituary for the Iowa and New Hampshire phase of her presidential campaign, and perhaps her candidacy, when she told voters on Sunday: ‘You campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose.’ Clinton has not heeded her own lesson. She is campaigning in prose and has left the poetry to Barack Obama.”

  • from The Times (UK):
    Politics with rhythm? Could be verse, by Ben Macintyre (February 2008)
    “Barack Obama’s creditable poems are in an erratic tradition of political versifying.... Calliope, the muse of poetry, has subtly insinuated herself into the American presidential race, and may be moving back into the White House come November. Barack Obama’s early poetry is being subjected to close critical analysis; the American poet Maya Angelou has thrown her stanzas into the ring in support of Hillary Clinton; and John McCain has revealed an unexpected taste for uplifting 19th-century English verse.”

Does poetry belong in the White House? Would reading a candidate’s poems influence your voting decision? Click on “Comments” below and tell us what you think. Then, just for fun, take our poll:


May 13, 2009 at 5:12 am
(1) kaykay thein says:

Of course poetry belongs in the White House, as it belongs anywhere in the world, as a part of life itself, an essential spark in every age and civilization. Winston Churchill was an avid amateur painter, a stray example in a possibly endless list of all those statesmen and stateswomen, who left a good mark in the world. Abe Lincoln himself was no exception, with his own stream of the arts in his heart, scribbling anywhere and anytime on whatever moved him.
Presidents, clergy,… all who are in the position of adviser to the nation and the people, who must make aware, well-informed, considered, level-headed, right-minded, comprehensive, timely decisions,…. must not only have brains and wits and energy besides right-mindedness, but should be as whole a human being as possible, equipped with mind-heart abilities to be better qualified for such advisory capacities. A human president must be also humane; and poetry is one of the strains singular to a human being, even if sometimes flavored with personal misconceptions that can apply to the most level-headed, poet or not.
Poetry is not muddleheaded. It is not too hard or too soft, making for decision and indecision, or right-thinking or lack of it. Lincoln’s inner-music translated itself into astoundingly good statesmanship. We need whole human beings– at once prosaic and poetic, with each quality in its own time, space and need.
Consider finally one recent US-president who was a well-known actor–Ronald Reagan. What does it matter whether a President is poet, actor, painter, novelist, or not? If he is, with no detriment to the other qualities needed for a statesman—well and good! We should avoid stereotyping people. I would certainly vote for a Presidential candidate who seems to foot the bill, irrespective of whether he is poet or not, or be he even someone who abhors poetry, anytime.

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