In a marvelous online essay for The American Scholar, author Tim Wendel recalls how Robert Kennedy used the power of words to calm a crowd after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.
Kennedy, who was running for president, was about to address supporters when he heard the news of King's death. Aides hurriedly approached Kennedy with some written suggestions of what to say, but he disregarded them and spoke from his head and heart instead.
The young US senator mentioned his own family's suffering after losing a loved one to an assassin's bullet. Then he quoted from a poem by the ancient Greek writer Aeschylus that he had memorized long before:
Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
Falls drop by drop upon the heart,
Until, in our own despair, against our will,
Comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.
Mr. Wendel credits Kennedy's words with helping to soothe the nation's anxiety and anger after a tragedy. Wendel also notes King's own gifts for rhetoric – an ability that, like Kennedy's, was honed through intimate familiarity with poetry.
All of this comes to mind with the arrival of another April, which means yet another observance of National Poetry Month. The existence of such a month is an admission of sorts that we don't value poetry much anymore. If poetry still enjoyed a central place in American life, then such a well-meaning promotion wouldn't be needed.
Kennedy and King probably belonged to the last generation of Americans for whom the memorization of poetry was considered an essential part of a good education. While Kennedy was partial to Aeschylus, King honed his writing and speaking skills by drawing upon the poetry of the Bible. These two titans of the 1960s were part of a long tradition of American leaders who drew upon the power of poetry to guide the country.
John Adams looked to Shakespeare and Cervantes to enlarge his intellectual and moral imagination. In "The Swerve," his recent book about a poem by the ancient Roman writer Lucretius called "On The Nature of Things," author Stephen Greenblatt notes the poem's abiding influence on Thomas Jefferson. This deeply philosophical poem, writes Mr. Greenblatt, "helped to shape Jefferson's confidence that ignorance and fear were not necessary components of human existence."
That faith – and Lucretius' singular way of expressing it – helped shape Jefferson's authorship of the Declaration of Independence. Abraham Lincoln's deep knowledge of Shakespeare's poetry helped Lincoln advance his own brand of eloquence.
The connection between poetry and political leadership seems to have largely gone missing in American life, as evidenced by a casual glance at this year's presidential campaign trail. Former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo is widely credited for having remarked that politicians campaign in poetry, then govern in prose. The idea is that campaigns, like poems, are supposed to stretch our sense of possibility to its limits, advancing ideals that, after the election, sometimes require more prosaic and practical thinking to implement.
This year, though, we seem to be not only governing in prose, but campaigning in prose, too. If any of the 2012 contenders for the White House routinely read poems and consult them for insights into how to speak, lead, and live, then they are doing a great job of keeping this practice a secret.
Our politics could benefit from reconnecting with poetry as a source of insight. Poems take us beyond ourselves, revealing connections with the wider world and currents of history. In reciting Aeschylus, Kennedy was reminding his troubled audience that loss and grief – and a capacity to prevail – are ageless, indelible parts of experience.
There's a reason we call the committing of a poem to memory "learning it by heart." It acknowledges the way that verse, once stamped in the mind, becomes a part of our intellectual and spiritual DNA, to draw on when we need it most. That's what good poems can do for today's leaders – and for the rest of us.
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”