Poetry Is Essential to Politics, and to Us

Article excerpt

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. …