Carter as Poet
Eight years before Jimmy Carter became the first U.S. president
to write a novel (The Hornet's Nest, Simon & Schuster,
2003) he'd become the first U.S. president to write a book
of poetry. Always a Reckoning, and Other
Poems (New York:
Times Books, 1995), a collection of 44 poems illustrated
by his granddaughter Sarah Elizabeth Chuldenko, met with
mixed reviews upon its publication. New
York Times book reviewer
Michiko Kakutani called Carter a "mediocre poet" who
writes "well-meaning, dutifully wrought poems that plod
from Point A to Point B without ever making a leap into emotional
hyperspace, poems that lack not only a distinctive authorial
voice, but also anything resembling a psychological or historical
Speaking of the genesis of Always a Reckoning in a 2003 interview, Carter
said that "ten years ago, I wanted to write a book of poems. I approached
with some temerity a couple of distinguished poets (Miller Williams and James
Whitehead) at the University of Arkansas who took me under their wing, and
I received the equivalent of a postgraduate course in poetry."2
Carter's education and interest in poetry began much earlier, however. As
an eighth grader attending the Plains school in Georgia, Carter and his classmates
were required by their English teacher Julia Coleman to memorize famous poems
and write poetry of their own. It was "Miss Julia," as Coleman was
known by students, who provided Carter with his first true exposure to poetry.
This exposure would lead Carter to take up poetry writing later in life. Carter
has noted that "when I was in the submarine force (1948-1952), I wrote
a good bit of poetry underwater for days at a time, you know, with not much
to do. I was newly married. I would write love poems to Rosalynn and write
poems just about things that went on on the submarine."3 Indeed, while
the poems in Always a Reckoning explore subjects
as diverse as "Peanuts," "A
Motorcycling Sister," and "My First Try for Votes," they also
include meditations on Rosalynn ("Rosalynn") and submarine life ("Life
on a Killer Submarine").
Although Carter's poems are still under copyright, a video of Carter reading "Considering
the Void" is available on the United
States of Poetry web site.
1. Michiko Kakutani, "A Politician's Poetry: From Life, With No Leaps," New
York Times, 24 January 1995, C17.
2. David Kronke, "Carter Goes
To War: Former President Pens Novel About South During American Revolution." Daily News,
7 December 2003, U.8., Valley edition.
3. Lori Moody, "Georgia On His
Mind: Jimmy Carter's Poetry Encompasses Home, Family, Presidency." Daily
February 1995, L.1., Valley edition.