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No Verse in the War Room: The Decline of Poetry among Politicians and Military Leaders

by Daniel Nathan Bern

Do you sometimes get the impression that those people who hold higher office or command the troops are not as cultured, well-read and articulate as what their kind were just a few generations ago? Do you reckon on occasions that contemporary politicians might need a well-paid speechwriter just to order them dinner at a two-star restaurant? Do you find yourself figuring that today’s army generals probably play more video games than study military history? If your answer to such questions is yes, then you’re definitely not imagining things. Such public figures are obviously not as sophisticated and as skilled in the social graces as what they were just half a century ago. A good indicator of how standards have fallen would be the lack of books — both fiction and nonfiction — written by politicians and military leaders over the past three or four decades. Even more telling is the decline in the composition of poetry by such leaders over the same time period.

It’s clearly necessary for me to backtrack here — most people today under thirty aren’t familiar with a time when presidents, prime ministers and big army brass wrote anything other than “illegible” Twitter posts or replies to statements of claim. Even a more general contemporary audience probably wouldn’t believe that such officials could ever write their own memoirs or set forth their political policies on paper, let alone compose sonnets and translate Greek poetry. But compose sonnets and translate poetry is exactly what many statesmen and officers did in the twentieth century and throughout earlier history.

Take for example Enoch Powell (1912–1998). Not the most celebrated of 20th century British politicians, admittedly — owing largely to the gradual breakdown of the British Empire, and Powell’s personal grievances and spitefulness in the face of the breakdown — but, controversies aside, Powell was a professor of Greek and a recognized and published classicist before enlisting in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment at the outbreak of World War II. And long before he was elected a Conservative MP (1950) and became a celebrity ideologue and pundit, he had two books of verse published, First Poems (1937) and Casting Off, and other poems (1939). The double volume Dancer’s End and The Wedding Gift would appear shortly after he entered politics, and the comprehensive Collected Poems was published towards the end of his life, in 1990. With references to his mother as his “earliest dwelling” in which he seeks comfort as an adult (“I turn again to rest in you”), and the English people of old as ghosts “hovering in the fields that once they tilled”, Powell comes across as a sort of mid-20th century Wordsworth for post-Empire England in the atomic age. Powell’s literary prowess and academic status may in fact partially explain the political popularity he enjoyed despite his contentious beliefs: even a “Rivers of Blood” speech is considerably more palatable when delivered by a published poet, celebrated classicist and former scholar.

Powell was not the only English literary statesman, certainly, and he was not the only one whose body of work included poetry. In the 19th century there was Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (1804–1881), who, in addition to several novels and the one play, wrote the book-length epic poem The Revolutionary Epick (1834). While critics have been generally derisive of Disraeli’s verse and divided in regards to his fiction, what is singularly notable is the fact that he continued to write and publish poetry and novels with some regularity after his entry into politics, with a novel published at the end of each of his two terms as prime minister.

A gaze further back through English history will uncover the more recognizable literary names of John Milton and Andrew Marvell. Although long seen as eminent men of English letters, with the former often ranked as the quintessential English bard, people tend to forget that both Milton and Marvell also served as statesmen for noteworthy terms. Milton was named Secretary for Foreign Tongues under Oliver Cromwell’s Council of State during the Commonwealth period (1649–1660). It was while serving in this capacity that he encountered and befriended Marvell, when, in 1657, Marvell began working as his Latin secretary — a position necessitated by Milton’s blindness, and one that had been previously held by German poet Georg Rudolph Wecklein. In fact, it was the "To His Coy Mistress" poet who defended Milton to the government of Charles II following the Restoration, preventing his execution for treason. By this time, Marvell had been elected MP for Hull, which he would continue to represent for the remainder of his life. This was quite unlike the situation with Milton, who would never again hold public office, and would have to depend on his savings and book sales for capital. Thankfully, it was in these final years of his life that he would publish his most acclaimed poetic works, including Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. As for Marvell, although he published Greek and Latin poetry early in his life, the majority of his best-known verse was published posthumously, in a 1681 collection assembled by his housekeeper who claimed to be his widow.

Sir Thomas More

A trip even further back down the English timeline will reveal the likes of Sir Thomas More (1478–1535). Although best remembered today as the philosopher and lord chancellor who refused to condone the whims of King Henry VIII (an avocationary lyrical poet in his own right) and became a Catholic martyr, More wrote poetry from an early age in both English and Latin. While evidence suggests that the Utopia author published only A Merry Jest (c. 1516) and his Latin Poems (1518, 1520) early in his political career, and that philosophical and theological writing came to dominate during his rise from speaker of the House of Commons to lord chancellor, the posthumous (Complete English) Works (1557) collects several previously unpublished poems that span his adult life, including verses written while imprisoned in the Tower of London for treason:

Ey-flatering fortune, loke thou neuer so fayre,
Or neuer so plesantly begin to smile,
As though thou wouldst my ruine all repayre,
During my life thou shalt me not begile.
Trust shall I god, to entre in a while.
Hys hauen or heauen sure and vniforme.
Euer after thy calme, loke I for a storme.

(“Lewys the Lost Louer”, 1534, in original English)

The daughter of Sir Thomas More’s royal detractor would become a royal bard after succeeding her half-siblings to the throne in 1558. Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603) had the distinction of being not only the unmarried “Virgin Queen” who produced no heir, but also a poetic monarch. Although her verses received limited circulation at the time of her writing, her reputation preceded her, with George Puttenham remarking (albeit quite sycophantically) in The Arte of English Poesie (1589) that “her learned, delicate, noble Muse, easily surmounteth all the rest that haue [have] written before her time or sence [since].” Capable of waxing poetic in French and Latin as well as English, she demonstrated an acerbic wit and an acute use of rhyme and alliteration, as illustrated in “The Doubt of Future Foes”:

The doubt of future foes exiles my present joy,
And wit me warns to shun such snares as threaten mine annoy;
For falsehood now doth flow, and subjects’ faith doth ebb,
Which should not be if reason ruled or wisdom weaved the web.
But clouds of joys untried do cloak aspiring minds,
Which turn to rain of late repent by changed course of winds.
The top of hope supposed the root upreared shall be,
And fruitless all their grafted guile, as shortly ye shall see.
The dazzled eyes with pride, which great ambition blinds,
Shall be unsealed by worthy wights whose foresight falsehood finds.
The daughter of debate that discord aye doth sow
Shall reap no gain where former rule still peace hath taught to know.
No foreign banished wight shall anchor in this port;
Our realm brooks not seditious sects, let them elsewhere resort.
My rusty sword through rest shall first his edge employ
To poll their tops that seek such change or gape for future joy.

Poetic abilities were not confined to English statesmen (and virgin queens) in Great Britain. True, English-speaking politicians throughout the British Commonwealth, the U.S. and Ireland have never been as poetically inclined as their British counterparts; but there were a few capable wordsmiths of some note in earlier centuries.

Down Under, early English-Australian poet Adam Lindsay Gordon was elected to the South Australian House of Assembly in March of 1865. The noted equestrian served as MP for the district of Victoria for about a year and a half before resigning in November of 1866. Unable to pay the printing fees for his poor-selling second book, Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes, he committed suicide at age 36 in 1870. Ironically, that same book is now considered an early major work of Australian poetry.

In Canada, the role of poetic statesman has been traditionally dominated by Quebecois Francophones; such as Legislative Assembly member Joseph-Isidore Bédard, Quebec City clerk François-Xavier Garneau, and Lévis MP Louis-Honoré Fréchette in the 19th century, and provincial separatist Gérald Godin in the mid to late 20th century. But the Irish-born Nicholas Flood Davin, the Assiniboia West MP (1887–1900) who submitted the controversial Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-Breeds to Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald in 1879, wrote English poetry as well as journalism, publishing Eos — A Prairie Dream in 1884. Similar to Adam Lindsay Gordon, he shot himself to death in 1901. I should also note that one of Canada’s best-known political poets of the 20th century was instrumental in shaping partisan socialist policy but never actually held office. F. R. Scott was an award-winning satirical bard, constitutional scholar, and founding member of Canada’s first social democratic party, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), and its successor, the New Democratic Party (NDP), but never actually held elected office or even served as a civil servant.

Vaguely comparable to F. R. Scott among American figures is founding father Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), who served as Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly, Postmaster General of British North America, first Postmaster General of the U.S., United States Minister to France and Sweden, and sixth President (Governor) of Pennsylvania, yet never became U.S. president — before or after the ratification of the Constitution. Already well known as the publisher of the Pennsylvania Gazette and Poor Richard’s Almanack before entering politics (1748), he was also an accomplished poet, particularly in the area of epigrams and aphoristic light verse:

The Press from her fecundous Womb
Brought forth the Arts of Greece and Rome;
Her offspring, skill’d in Logic War,
Truth’s Banner wav’d in open Air;
The Monster Superstition fled,
And hid in Shades in Gorgon Head;
And awless Pow’r, the long kept Field,
By Reason quell’d, was forc’d to yield.

(from “On the Freedom of the Press”, 1757)

The Irish Republic had at least one major literary politician in its midst in the early 20th century. Although he was renowned internationally as a poet, most people are unaware that William Butler Yeats was appointed to the Irish Senate in 1922 and reappointed for a second term in 1925. As a Protestant-born senator, the ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ author took a stand on such contentious topics as legal divorce, warning that if Roman Catholic policies and dogmas were allowed to influence legislation unchecked, then it would perpetuate and widen divisions within the Republic, and further estrange the Protestant majority in the British-ruled Northern province.

From beyond the realm of the English language there have been the likes of Pablo Neruda in Chile. Born Ricardo Basoalto in 1904, Neruda was writing poetry in Spanish from an early age, and had already published what remains the biggest-selling book of Spanish-language verse (Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada, or Twenty Love Poems and A Desperate Song) by the age of nineteen. Having established an international reputation as a poet, Neruda began taking honorary diplomatic posts in Rangoon, Bueno Aires and Barcelona, among others. He was increasingly politicized by the events of the Spanish Civil War, particularly the execution of Garcia Lorca at the hands of dictator Francisco Franco’s forces, becoming a lifelong communist in the process. Devoutly leftist to the point of controversy, he was an ardent supporter of Stalin — publishing Soviet-sympathetic verses and receiving the Lenin Peace Prize in 1953 — and was complicit in spiriting Mexican painter David Siquieros to safety in Chile following a 1940 assassination attempt on Leon Trotsky. Neruda was elected a Communist Senator in 1945, but soon found himself in hiding and exile for four years after Chilean President González Videla turned emphatically against the Communist Party that had helped bring his Radical Party to power. Neruda returned to Chile in 1952 in the wake of Videla’s crumbling government, and his fame as a poet and left-wing intellectual continued to grow in spite of attempts by the CIA to discredit him. Two years after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, and two weeks after Augusto Pinochet led a coup against socialist President Salvador Allende, Neruda died under mysterious circumstances in 1973.

Also from the communist world, Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh (born Nguyen Sinh Cung in 1890) wrote poetry as well as prose and journalism in French, Chinese and Vietnamese. Before leading the independence movement in the August Revolution (1945) and becoming Prime Minister and President of North Vietnam, Ho was jailed in China under Chiang Kai-shek for thirteen months in 1942–43. It was while incarcerated that he wrote his famous rhyming quatrains that would comprise The Prison Diary:

Goodbye to a Tooth

You are hard and proud, my friend,
Not soft and long like the tongue:
Together we have shared all kinds of bitterness and sweetness,
But now you must go west while I go east.

(free-verse translation by Alleen Palmer, 1966)

Ho continued to publish inspirational poetry on an annual basis in the Vietnamese newspaper Nhan Dan until the later 1960’s, when his health began to deteriorate. Ho died in 1969 of heart-related problems. Following the reunification in 1976, Saigon was officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City in honor of the late president and poet.

Like all revolutionaries and heads of state, Ho Chi Minh had close ties to military forces. The military of various nations in previous eras produced its fair share of poets, too, especially in times of war.

World War I produced the likes of Herbert Asquith, Rupert Brooke, Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen in England alone. Asquith, son of Prime Minister H. H. Asquith, was an artillery officer who also published The Volunteer and Other Poems (1915), a collection of lyrical poems which focused on the fallen soldiers. He would go on to write several novels, including Young Orland, which was set during and after the war. Brooke, a handsome King’s College graduate who had been promoted to sub-lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, died of sepsis aboard a French hospital ship in the Aegean Sea in 1915. Recognized for his idealistic war sonnets by everyone from Edward Marsh to Winston Churchill, His 1914 & Other Poems was published posthumously a month after his death. Graves, a second lieutenant in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, published Over the Brazier, his first volume of poems, in 2016. Although so gravely wounded at the Battle of the Somme that he was officially reported as dead, he would live to produce many other books of poetry, write several successful historical novels, and serve as Professor of Poetry at Oxford before his death at age 90 in 1985. Sassoon, a bit of a reckless hero from an upper-middle-class background, was awarded the Military Cross and recommended for the Victoria Cross. He published numerous volumes of poetry (as well as books of prose) before, during and after the Great War, which he grew increasingly ambivalent about. In July of 1917 his disillusionment culminated in his refusal to return to duty and his penning of a letter entitled Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration, which he sent to his commanding officer and forwarded to the press. Rather than have him court-martialled for treason — owing no doubt to Sassoon’s decorated military status — the Under-Secretary of State for War (Ian Macpherson) declared him unfit for service and had him sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh, where he was treated for neurasthenia, or “shell shock.” It was while recovering at Craiglockhart that Sassoon met and encouraged fellow poet Wilfred Owen, who was also receiving treatment for neurasthenia. Owen was a second lieutenant who, like Sassoon and Graves, was secretly homosexual. Following his mentor’s example, upon release from hospital he returned to duty in France, where he was killed in action on the fourth of November, 1918. Although he published only five poems before his death, he is remembered as the greatest poet of World War I by critics and readers alike, owing largely to his realistic treatment of trench warfare:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

(from “Dulce et Decorum Est”, published posthumously in 1920)


Wilfred Owen


Possibly even more famous than any of Owen’s poems is “In Flanders Fields”, written by Canadian soldier and physician Lt.-Col. John McCrae. First published in Punch in 1915, its references to the poppies growing upon the graves of fallen soldiers (“In Flanders Fields, the poppies blow / Between the crosses, row on row”) was the inspiration for the red Remembrance Day poppy that has become so popular throughout the Western world. By the time of the outbreak of The Great War, McCrae had already served as a lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Artillery in the Second Boer War, and had lectured as a professor of pathology at the University of Vermont and McGill University, among other institutions. He had also co-authored a medical textbook with J. G. Adami, A Text-Book of Pathology for Students of Medicine (1912). McCrae died at age 45 in 1918, shortly before the end of the war.

Among the military bards representing the German side of World War I, there was the relatively singular figure of August Stramm, a reserve officer who is considered to be the first of the expressionist poets and one of the most innovative bards of the Great War. Stramm’s publisher signed an official request that Stramm be relieved of duty owing to his importance as a poet; but the officer refused to countersign the document, and was subsequently shot to death at age 41 while doing combat with members of the Russian Imperial Army in 1915. Other notable German poets who participated in the war include Rudolf G. Binding, Walter Flex and Reinhard Sorge.

Although not as closely associated with poetry as the First World War, the Second World War also produced a substantial number of British military poets. Keith Douglas, Sidney Keyes and Alun Lewis (from Wales) are well remembered for their poetic reflections on the war, despite — or more likely largely due to — their not having survived it. It should be noted that most British poets of World War II were conscripted or joined the forces after the war’s outbreak. In other words, they were not officers or “career soldiers” for the most part — although Charles Causley and Roy Fuller (from Scotland) were promoted to the ranks of petty officer and sub-commander respectively in the Royal Navy. In this regard, they more closely resemble the British World War I poet Isaac Rosenberg, who declined promotion to lance corporal and died a private in the trenches, and whom Keith Douglas references in “Desert Flowers.” It was this frontline devotion to combating an indubitably evil regime like Hitler’s Germany that no doubt accounts for such World War II poets lacking the disillusionment and complex ambivalence of the more famous World War I poets. Other World War II poets from the U.K., such as F. T. Prince and Norman Cameron, worked in British intelligence, and never actually saw action.

The United States’ military also contributed significantly to World War II poetry. Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, Dunstan Thompson, Karl Shapiro and Randal Jarrell are all notable names that emerged as a result of the U.S.’s 1941 entry into the war. Like their British counterparts, the American soldier-poets had no major qualms about combating an enemy as clearly odious and fearsome as what the Axis powers were. Wilbur, who was particularly vocal about the moral clarity of the war, continues to be recognized as a major voice. The 36th Infantry Division radio operator saw action during the Italian Campaign, Operation Dragoon and the Final Invasion of Germany, rising to the rank of sergeant in the process. Well known for “Tywater” and “First Snow in Alsace,” he won the Pulitzer Poetry Prize twice and ultimately became U.S. Poet Laureate before his death at age 96 in 2017.

The snow came down last night like moths
Burned on the moon; it fell till dawn,
Covered the town with simple cloths.

Absolute snow lies rumpled on
What shellbursts scattered and deranged,
Entangled railings, crevassed lawn.

As if it did not know they’d changed,
Snow smoothly clasps the roofs of homes
Fear-gutted, trustless and estranged.

(from “First Snow in Alsace”, 1947)

On the Axis side of World War II, poet and translator Ryuichi Tamura was conscripted into service in the Imperial Japanese Navy in 1943. Despite not seeing action, Tamura was traumatized by the deaths of friends. His trauma informed the poems that were published in the literary journal that he revived, Arechi (The Waste Land), and that comprise his first book, Yosen no hi no yoru (Four Thousand Days and Nights, 1956). He would receive several major prizes and honors before his death at 75 in 1998. Far more gruesome was the fate of General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, a former diplomat and waka and haiku poet who had warned his superiors of the dangers of engaging the United States in warfare by attacking Pearl Harbor. In order to ultimately silence his opposition to the war, command of the suicide mission of defending Iwo Jima was assigned to General Kuribayashi in March of 1945. Prior to departure, he sent his official farewell to the Imperial Headquarters along with three traditional “death poems” written in the waka form. Like the farewell message, the poems contained subtle lamentations over the military command’s casual and fickle handling of soldiers’ lives at their disposal. These poems were censored and rewritten upon their initial posthumous publication in Japan.

The last war to produce a notable number of military poets was the highly controversial Vietnam War. Among those American military figures to wax poetically on their experiences defending South Vietnam are W. D. Ehrhart, a Purple Heart-awarded Marine Corps sergeant who has been called “the Dean of Vietnam War poetry”; Michael Casey, a military police officer who served in Quang Ngai Province and who won the 1972 Yale Younger Poets Award for his Obscenities collection; Yusef Komunyakaa, an African-American U.S. Army private who was awarded a Bronze Star for his wartime military journalism and who won the Dark Room Poetry Prize for his fifth volume of poetry, the Vietnam-inspired Dien Cai Dau in 1988; Bruce Weigl, a Bronze Star-awarded U.S. Army veteran and professor of English who was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for Song of Napalm; and Rob Jacques, a Vietnam War-era U.S. Navy veteran who explores warfare from a homosexual perspective in his 2017 collection War Poet.

I could rattle on at some length about General Douglas MacArthur’s unpublished love poems, pre-20th century military poets (e.g., Sir Philip Sidney, Li Po), and the lyrical inclinations of King Richard I, but such exemplifying might be excessive in this context; and the Vietnam War may be an appropriate place to leave off and return to our central theme. After all, it was during this era that the poet-politician went into decline, and politicians’ attitudes towards poets (and writers in general) began to change in Western countries.

By the mid to late 1960’s, people from the arts and entertainment world were speaking out with increased frequency and conviction against the U.S.’s involvement in the Vietnam War, and in particular its use of the draft as a means of assuring a limitless supply of servicemen. Both in interviews and within their literary output, the poets of the day were no exception. From left-wing “beatniks” like Allen Ginsberg and Lenore Kandel to more traditional academics like Robert Lowell and W. S. Merwin, American bards condemned and outright protested the war with an unignorable fervor. Similar reactions were quick in coming from bards beyond the U.S.’s borders, such as Milton Acorn and Leonard Cohen in Canada, and Adrian Mitchell and the Mersey Poets in the U.K.

The results of this poetic backlash were twofold. On the one hand, the Johnson and Nixon administrations quickly developed an unflattering view of poets as annoying critics and “commie” sympathizers — a view soon shared by sympathetic governments of other democratic nations, and passed on to successive governments in the years and decades that followed. On the surface, it may seem ironic that contemporary right-wing politicians in the U.S., Britain and Canada are more likely to demand cuts to the federal funding of poets and other artists, or at least greater scrutiny of applicants in the selection process, given how so many of the Western poet-statesmen leaned towards the Right end of the political spectrum historically. But this disdain for and distrust of poets goes back to the mid 1960’s, and has not been necessarily limited to right-wing parties and governments, considering as how it began with Lyndon Johnson’s Democratic administration.

On the other hand, the media of the day made semi-celebrities out of many of the poets who spoke out against the war. The idea of the “celebrity poet-protester” gave rise to the possibility of Democratic candidates developing their poetic skills in order to appeal to the sensibilities of young voters, particularly those who thought poets like Ginsberg and Cohen were “hip” and “cool.” Enter Senator Eugene McCarthy. The former college instructor, Catholic monk and World War II Intelligence veteran published his first two poems in the April12th issue of Life magazine in 1968, having started writing poetry the year before. The fact that it was a presidential election year and that McCarthy was an antiwar candidate was not lost on anyone with their wits about them. Wrote Life columnist Shana Alexander at the time: “Lately McCarthy has discovered, with some surprise, that people who like his politics also tend to like poetry. Crowds urge forward eagerly when they learn Robert Lowell is traveling with the candidate.”

With hindsight, you can easily make the argument that it was much simpler for a middle-aged politician to become a halfway competent poet overnight than what it was to become a guitar-playing singer-songwriter or a heavyweight boxer. Bob Dylan and Muhammad Ali would have been inimitable templates, but a second Robert Lowell was achievable in 1968 — as it has been for any sentient and reasonably educated politician in the decades since. In other words, the additional role of Poet is no longer an innate or academically developed capacity, but instead a mantle that a politician might choose to adopt at some mid-career juncture as an additional emblem of his taste, sensitivity and good breeding; or merely a coda to his career, a hobby that he would not otherwise develop to its logical conclusion (book-length publication) had he not been a public figure.

Nearly three decades after his Life debut, McCarthy published Selected Poems and Cool Reflections: Poetry For The Who, What, When, Where and Especially Why of It All in 1997, eight years before his death at age 89. With 21st century hindsight, his infamous “The Death of the Old Plymouth Rock Hen” now seems to be as much a metaphor for McCarthy The Bard and the Poetic Politician as what it is one for slavery and the plight of the Black American:

It was tragic when her time came
After a lifetime of laying brown eggs
Among the white of leghorns.
Now, unattractive to the rooster,
Laying no more eggs,
Faking it on other hens’ nests,
Caught in the act,
Taken to the woodpile
In the winter of execution.

Two years prior to the McCarthy collections, former president Jimmy Carter published his contribution to the poetry world, Always a Reckoning and Other Poems. Despite its moments of poignancy (“Considering the Void”, “A Motorcycling Sister”, “Life on a Killer Submarine”), Carter’s book definitely falls in the category of “career-capping curios,” and would not have seen the light of day had it been the product of some purely anonymous young college graduate.

The same can be said for Of Sons and Seasons (1978) and A Baker’s Nickel (1986) by William S. Cohen, the Republican senator (1979–1997) who went on to serve as Secretary of Defense during Democrat Bill Clinton’s second term as president. David Grimes (Sarasota Herald-Tribune) described Cohen’s verse “as the kind of poetry you might expect from a lovelorn eighth-grader who ate too much pepperoni pizza and ice cream for lunch and now has to take a math midterm for which he didn’t study.” According to Grimes, only the following “semi-comprehensible” rumination would bear any relevance to Cohen’s future role as Defense Secretary. It also nullifies any possible right-wing suspicions that Cohen the Poet might harbor “communist sympathies”:

Before they unleash
hurricane winds,
Before they breathe
through nostrils red
beyond all Fahrenheit,
Turn them to endless
ash, yes, save us from
their savagery.

Owing to the unpopularity of “commie” poets with politicians on the Right, and the adoption of the bard’s mantle for practical or superficial purposes on the Left, the decline in poetry among U.S. statesmen in the post-Vietnam era has been conspicuous in terms of both quality and sheer number. The same can be said of its status in most other Western countries, particularly the English-speaking ones.

In the U.K., Labour M.P. David Blunkett included three of his own poems in his 1995 autobiography On a Clear Day, and recited another, “Echo,” on a Radio 4 broadcast in 2009. According to The Guardian’s Robert Potts (29 March 2007), he blamed the poetic writer’s block that he experienced while serving as Home Secretary (2001–2004) on his political workload, general unhappiness and Osama bin Laden. Although now a member of the decidedly more relaxed House of Lords, a full volume of verse has yet to emerge from Baron Blunkett of Brightside and Hillsborough in the City of Sheffield.

In Canada, the idea of the poetic politician has been reduced to a joke, with right-wing M.P.’s like Brian Pallister, John Barlow and Marilyn Gladu reciting poorly constructed satirical poems during question period in the House of Commons. Given the conservative context, their crass “compositions” have appeared to mock not only familiar targets such as immigration, a proposed carbon tax and legal cannabis, but also the act of writing and reciting poetry itself. The occasional bit of left-wing verse that has surfaced along the way, such as Liberal MP Rodger Cuzner’s annual Christmas poem, has done nothing to promote or elevate the art form either.

Michael D. Higgins is something of a notable exception. In addition to books of nonfiction and work in television broadcasting, the Limerick-born President of Ireland has published four books of poetry since 1990, the most recent (New and Selected Poems) appearing in 2011, the year he took office. While Higgins’s verse has drawn the praises of fellow Irish poet Brendan Kennelly, it has also drawn harsh criticism from British poet Carol Rumens, who derided his “When Will My Time Come” as “mad dog shite” in The Guardian (1 November 2011) shortly after the paper reprinted the poem. Although poetry has understandably taken a backseat to running the country since his taking office (he was elected to his second term in 2018), Higgins released “The Prophets are Weeping” to the public in early 2015, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo Massacre:

To those on the road it is reported that
The Prophets are weeping,
At the abuse
Of their words,
Scattered to sow an evil seed.
Rumour has it that,
The prophets are weeping.
At their texts distorted,
The death and destruction,
Imposed in their name.
The sun burns down,
On the children who are crying,
On the long journeys repeated,
Their questions not answered.
Mothers and Fathers hide their faces,
Unable to explain,
Why they must endlessly,
No end in sight,
Move for shelter,
for food, for safety, for hope.
The Prophets are weeping,
For the words that have been stolen,
From texts that once offered,
To reveal in ancient times,
A shared space,
Of love and care,
Above all for the stranger.

Former Prime Minister of France (2005–2007) Dominique de Villepin has proven more knowledgeable yet less forthcoming in his poetic endeavors than his Anglophone counterparts. In 2003, while serving as France’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, he published his reflections on versifying, Éloge des voleurs de feu (Elegy to the Fire Thieves; English: On Poetry). This 824-page celebration of such legendary French rebels as Arthur Rimbaud and Antonin Artaud came after years of honing his own skills as a poet. Despite his authoritarian stance on the literary form, however, the conservative de Villepin has so far chosen to only privately publish and discreetly distribute his own volumes of French verse.

   Dominique de Villepin

Elsewhere, South Africa’s Mongane Wally Serote was already an award-winning poet and novelist long before being elected to Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) Parliament in 1994. Imprisoned for several months in 1969 under the apartheid government, Serote wrote from both a firsthand perspective and a politically idealistic view. The verse found in such collections as No Baby Must Weep (1975) and Behold Mama, Flowers (1978) reflect his utter dismay at the injustice and heartbreak in a country which was “…ruled by the whistle that tears / into the dark / like a sharp blade through a piece of cloth,” and in which “every mourning is a dangerous alley.” A former chairperson of the parliamentary select committee for arts and culture, he was made National Poet Laureate of South Africa in 2018.

On the military front, possibly the only poet of note in the post-Vietnam era would be U.S. Army infantry team leader Brian Turner. A veteran of the U.S.-led war in Iraq that overthrew the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, Turner’s 2005 debut collection, Here, Bullet, was informed by his wartime experiences in Iraq from November of 2003 to November of 2004. Representative of the entire volume in its graphic surrealism, the title poem addresses the bullet which craves an “adrenaline rush” — “that inexorable flight, that insane puncture / into heat and blood.” The book won numerous awards, and was followed in 2010 by Phantom Noise, which was nominated for the T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry.

Turner and Serote have been the rare exceptions to the contemporary norm, however. Of the few politicians and military personnel who have attempted verse in recent decades, not everyone has been as accomplished, well-intentioned and level-headed.

Take Saparmurat Niyazov for instance. The Turkmenistan dictator bestowed at least two books of verse upon his beleaguered country before his death in 2006, as well as those original poems of his found in the Ruhnama, a lengthy mixed bag of stories and proverbs borrowed from Turkmen epics, and codes of conduct and morality. Published in two volumes in 2001 and 2004, the Ruhnama served as the country’s primary tool of state propaganda, being a mandatory aspect of school and university curricula. Ultimately, an adequate knowledge of its contents even became a requirement for passing a driving test.

Equally embarrassing has been Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic. The award-winning author of several books of poetry dating back to 1968, the Republic Srpska’s first president went on the run in 1996 following his indictment for genocide. Creatively undaunted, Karadzic published at least three more books of verse while in hiding. Apprehended in 2008, in 2016 he was found guilty by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia of the genocide in Srebrenica, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. The “Butcher of Bosnia” is currently serving a life sentence that was upgraded from 40 years following an unsuccessful appeal.

Niyazov and Karadzic are definitely extreme examples, and far from typical when considering the plight of the poetic politician in the post-Vietnam War era. But they stand as symbolic of the downward trend on some level or another. As I’ve outlined, more typical of the trend is the politician who takes up poetry in order to add a layer of cool sophistication to his image and legacy, knowing full well that his public position will assure its publication and distribution; or, likelier still, the statesman or military leader who writes nothing, and condemns as “commies” and “tax leeches” those serious creators who do commit their thoughts and feelings to verse. To exacerbate matters, this is a trend that doesn’t appear to be changing for the better anytime soon. The contemporary political systems and modern militaries are simply not attracting those who possess the raw, innate talent that drives the true poetic hand, particularly in Western nations.

If the raw, innate poetic talent can’t be mustered up from the depths of the politician’s or soldier’s psyche, then an alternative example might be taken from the actions of former U.S. president Barack Obama. Unbeknown to most, the future president published two poems in the Spring 1981 issue of Feast, a student journal of poetry and fiction culled from the Occidental College campus. Consider the shorter of the two, “Underground”:

Under water grottos, caverns
Filled with apes
That eat figs.
Stepping on the figs
That the apes
Eat, they crunch.
The apes howl, bare
Their fangs, dance,
Tumble in the
Rushing water,
Musty, wet pelts
Glistening in the blue.

At least President Obama knew when to quit, and didn’t decide to dig out his old college manuscript sometime during his second term and send it out for publication. We should be forever grateful. If only he could have taught Saparmurat Niyazov — or at least outlawed Twitter for sitting U.S. presidents.