Opinion

Poetry is essential to politics, and to us

The deepest reading of a good poem isn't just a wistful hobby, it's a revolutionary act.

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While observance of April's National Poetry Month might prompt a shrug from the throngs of Americans who no longer read poetry, John Adams never seemed to doubt that poetry mattered. And as the nation prepares to elect another president, Adams's views on the subject couldn't be more timely.

The second president of the United States has renewed celebrity these days, thanks to HBO's "John Adams," a miniseries based on the acclaimed biography by David McCullough.

In the first few episodes viewers see that Adams was no sissy, following the Founding Father as he braves freezing horseback rides, pitches manure on his New England farm, and faces British cannon fire during a dangerous diplomatic voyage to France.

But as Mr. McCullough mentions in his chronicle of Adams's life, this man of action also loved poetry, a form of expression often dismissed as a dainty pastime for wallflowers.

In his attempt to fathom human nature, writes McCullough, Adams "was drawn to Shakespeare and Swift, and likely to carry Cervantes or a volume of English poetry with him on journeys. 'You will never be alone with a poet in your pocket,' he would tell his son Johnny."

In poetry, Adams found the graceful rhythms that would inform his development as a master of rhetoric. And in poetry, Adams found insights into human nature that sharpened his political skill. Clearly, Adams didn't rise to the pantheon of political leadership in spite of his love for poetry, but in some measure because of it.

No one should be surprised that this key player in the American Revolution loved poetry, since the deepest reading of a good poem isn't just a wistful hobby, it's a revolutionary act.

"Great poetry can alter the way we see ourselves," author Roger Housden writes. "It can alter the way we see the world." At its best, Mr. Housden adds, poetry "dares us to break free from the safe strategies of the cautious mind; it calls to us, like the wild geese, from an open sky."

Despite Housden's modern-day musing on poetry reading as a radical, relevant exercise in change, my guess is that many will regard Adams's poetry habit as a quaint period oddity, something as charmingly dated as powder wigs and quill pens.

After all, Americans aren't reading a lot of poetry these days, as evidenced by its relative absence from bookstore shelves. And let's face it: If poetry were popular, then earnest awareness-raising exercises like National Poetry Month wouldn't seem so plaintive.

But another Massa-chusetts leader who followed Adams into the White House once reminded us that poetry's power to drive change is timeless, and that it can also be a useful check on the less flattering impulses of governance.

"When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations," John F. Kennedy said in 1963. "When power narrows the areas of man's concerns, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses."

Which is why, this campaign year, we would do well to rediscover the power of poetry – and to ask if any of those who want to be president are following Adams's advice, and keeping a poet in their pocket.

Danny Heitman is the author of "A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House."

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