“Always a Reckoning and Other Poems” By Jimmy Carter, illustrated by Sarah Elizabeth Chuldenko (Times Books, 130 pages, $18)
At first glance, the vocations of poet and politician might seem completely antithetical. Poetry, after all, requires subtlety, introspection and fidelity to language, qualities not exactly valued by most politicians.
Oddly enough, in the case of former President Jimmy Carter, the very qualities that helped cripple him as a politician are also the qualities that make him a mediocre poet.
As president, Carter was frequently criticized for lacking a real vision; he was widely described as a technician, an engineer, an ineffectual manager lacking imagination, passion and focus.
As one associate put it, he “knew all the words and none of the music.” The same might well be said of the poems in “Always a Reckoning”: wellmeaning, dutifully crafted poems that plod earnestly 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 subtext.
Many of the poems in this volume address a specific, self-contained subject, be it a nursing stint by Carter’s mother in India (“Miss Lillian Sees Leprosy for the First Time”), a strike by field hands witnessed during Mr. Carter’s youth (“The Day No One Came to the Peanut Picker”) or a glimpse of Canada geese from the White House roof (“A Reflection of Beauty in Washington”).
The subject is then recounted in blandly straightforward terms that sentimentally spell out what the speaker is feeling and by implication, how the reader is supposed to react.
One poem ends:
The geese passed overhead,
and then without a word
we went down to a peaceful sleep,
marveling at what we’d seen and heard.
I faced her treatment every week with dread
and loathing - of the chore, not the child.
As time passed, I was less afraid,
and managed not to turn my face away.
On the rare occasion when Carter does try for a more “literary” effect, the results are clumsy, even unintentionally subversive of the narrator’s meaning. In a love song to his wife (“Rosalynn”), Carter writes:
She’d smile, and birds would feel that they no longer
had to sing, or it may be I failed
to hear their song.
When Carter first ran for president in 1976, he sold himself less as a leader with sweeping plans for the country than as a caring man, who represented a homespun alternative after the imperial Presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson and the Watergate-plagued administration of Richard M. Nixon. He introduced himself to voters with the line: “I’m Jimmy Carter, and I’m running for president. I will never lie to you.”
In a much discussed 1979 essay, James Fallows, a former speechwriter for Carter, wrote: “Where Lyndon Johnson boasted of schools built and children fed, where Edward Kennedy holds out the promise of the energies he might mobilize and the ideas he might enact, Jimmy Carter tells us that he is good man. Like Marshall Petain after the fall of France, he has offered his person to the nation. This is not an inconsiderable gift; his performance in office shows us why it’s not enough.”
A similarly personal approach has informed many of Carter’s recent diplomatic efforts, and it also lies at the heart of his verse. In fact, when it comes to poetry, Carter’s own life is his favorite subject.
In addition to Rosalynn Carter, there are portraits in “Always a Reckoning” of Carter’s mother, his father, his friends and neighbors in Georgia. There are poems about peanut farming, possum hunting and trout fishing, poems about political campaigns in Georgia and Presidential trips abroad. As in Carter’s campaign biography (“Why Not the Best?”) and memoirs (“Keeping Faith”), an image of small-town piety, thrift, hard work and morality is stressed.
What’s odd about these poems is that they give the reader plenty of information about Carter’s day-to-day experiences, while revealing little about his inner, imaginative life. The sentiments expressed tend to be generic ones, expressed in strangely abstract terms: sadness over a parent’s illness, nostalgia for childhood adventures, sympathy for the suffering of the poor, hope for a rosier future.
The poem “Plains,” for instance, does nothing to evoke the actual emotional or physical geography of Carter’s hometown; rather, it devolves into a vague plea for racial harmony and shared dreams:
Though the town is small,
We cherish it as haven, home, and friend,
And won’t let strife or mischance bring to all
our dreams - our modest, tempered dreams - an end.
Indeed Carter does a good job of summing up the state of his verse in one of this volume’s more astute poems:
Now when I seek efficient words
to say what I believe is true
or have a dream I want to share
the vagueness is still there.