Thursday, November 19, 2009

Open Letter to President Barack Obama: Moments for Poetic Language in Military Decisions

The Honorable Barack Obama
President of the United States
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington D. C. 20500

Dear President Obama:

Respectfully, I suggest inclusion of poetic language by reading a poem or excerpt in White House discussions regarding military decisions, particularly now about Afghanistan .

The poetic language takes people past the generic abstractness of numbers—40,000 troops contemplated for Afghanistan , for example—to awareness about every single one of these troops. The tragic beauty of the poetic language provides a compelling visual of a battle scene and what happens to the individual serviceperson.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow moves us when he writes about a young Civil War soldier, “Killed at the Ford,” in the first stanza:

Killed at the Ford

He is dead, the beautiful youth,

The heart of honor, the tongue of truth,

He, the life and light of us all,

Whose voice was blithe as a bugle-call,

Whom all eyes followed with one consent,

The cheer of whose laugh, and whose pleasant word,

Hushed all murmurs of discontent.

In “Anthem for Doomed Youth” the poet Wilfred Owen, killed in action at age 25, November 4, 1918, a week before the Armistice, asks…

What passing-bells for those who die as cattle?

Only the monstrous anger of the guns.

Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle…

We have abundant resources for appropriate and moving language about war: Matthew Arnold’s “ Dover Beach ,” Carl Sandburg’s “Wars” and Herman Melville’s considerable poetry about the Civil War. In “ Gettysburg ,” Melville tells us “The evening sun/ Died on the face of each lifeless one.”

There is the informing those who survive like the parents being called to the porch in Walt Whitman’s “Come Up from the Fields Father,” which could be a national memorial poem:

Come up from the fields father, here’s a letter from our Pete,

And come to the front door mother, here’s a letter from thy dear son.


Down in the fields all prospers well,

But now from the fields come Father, come at the daughter’s call,

And come to the entry mother, to the front door come right away

Open the envelope quickly,

O this is not our son’s writing…

O a strange hand writes for our dear son, O stricken mother’s soul!

…While they stand at home at the door he is dead already,

The only son is dead…

I am inspired to make this appeal, Mr. President, by your having revived the tradition of a poet writing and reading a poem at the Inauguration.

Thank you for your consideration of this suggestion.


Maxwell Corydon Wheat, Jr

Maxwell Corydon Wheat, Jr. is the First Poet Laureate of Nassau County, New York 2007-09.

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