A poet in a crowd of poets, I first met Jimmy Carter at the White House in 1980. Too short a time after that Tom T. Hall, an old friend, asked Jim Whitehead and me if we would meet him and a few others in Plains to welcome the Carters home and if we would each read a poem written for the event. Joined by our Gen and Jordan, we gathered with others at Billy Carter’s home for barbecued chicken and good talk. Halfway along in the evening we read our poems and presented copies to President Carter. When we had returned to our places, hoping we had not done badly, the president remained standing in the center of the room and spoke as the rest of us sat on the arms of chairs and on the floor and stood in doorways with our plates and drinks. As nearly as I can recall, this is what he said.
“Rosalynn and I will keep these two poems on our nearest wall, to read them over and over, until we find in them everything there is to be found there. Now, mind you, what we find there”—and he looked toward Jim and me—”may not be only what you put there. It may also be what we took there, because that’s what good poetry demands and allows.”
My first thought, as I heard this, was that we had had a president equal to such a perception and able to voice it; my second thought was that we had just heard an encapsulation of a talk on the form and theory of poetry.
It was some time later that Jimmy Carter broached the subject of poetry from the writer’s point of view as a course to be pursued, an art to be mastered. We were in Plains, having dinner in a delightful cafe made that way by its owner, Sybil Carter, Billy’s widow. The president asked me what a person interested in writing poetry might want to read.
From that day, Jim Whitehead and I shared with him what insights and skills, perspectives and prejudices we had collected over thirty years of putting words together to make poems. In three decades also of teaching, I had never encountered a person more quick to learn, more willing to be a student, so impatient to know more, or so comfortably set to resist a suggestion if it seemed to compromise his own way of going.
We have stayed into the morning hours at the kitchen table in the residence at the Carter Center in Atlanta and on the back porch of my home in Arkansas, talking about his poems and about poetry and the poems of others. Jimmy Carter—as his remark at the first gathering in Plains made clear—was no newcomer to poetry. He had read long and widely and well, but he knew that writing a poem was a very different thing; he was leaving the bleachers and stepping onto the field, and he wanted to do it right, all the more so because of his deep respect for those whose work he admired, Dylan Thomas especially.
Each time when we talked ourselves out and decided it was time to turn in, I reluctantly left the company of a most remarkable person, a man who was a naval officer, legislator, governor, and president, a man called upon to mediate truces and monitor elections around the world because he is the only one trusted by both sides, one who has written important and lasting books on a variety of subjects, who gives a career’s worth of time and effort to building homes for the homeless, who spends on scores of other humanitarian projects time and energy that would exhaust many younger men, who sits in a kitchen and on a back porch and says, “The fifth line reads a little better now,” and “I don’t think this word is doing anything,” and “I see your point, but that doesn’t sound like me.”
I try to forget, for the sake of the poems, that the man with whom I’m working, drinking coffee, deleting and scribbling, briefly arguing, is President Carter, carrying a title never lost, and one by which I continued to address him for some time after we began looking over his lines. In one of the exchanges I hold most dear in my memory he let me know that he also would like to have the consciousness of his place muted in our friendship, an exchange in which it became clear to both of us how difficult it was to erase that awareness.
I had said something like, “No, Mr. President, this line is going to be read with six stresses.”
He said, “I’d rather you called me Jimmy.”
“Well,” I said. I think I hesitated a little. “I’m not really comfortable calling you Jimmy.”
“Well,” he insisted, “I’m not going to be comfortable if you don’t.”
“I guess,” I said, “it’s just a matter of which of us is going to be uncomfortable.”
There was a moment of silence when he looked at me and barely smiled. From then on I’ve called him Jimmy.
His poems, at this point in his writing, came almost entirely out of moments in his own life, as the poems of Dylan Thomas came for the greater part directly out of his. He moves somewhat away from the autobiographical in “The County Boss Explains How It Is,” a dramatic monologue that I read as one of his most successful poems, and in the sharp turn of “A Battle Prayer;” though both of these poems reflect two of the poet’s own passages, he holds a distance that lets a reader be especially at home in them. “It Can Fool the Sun” is almost as anonymous, to use John Crowe Ransom’s term.
This distance is an attractive and useful quality in a poem, but some of the finest poems in our history are clearly autobiographical (“When I Have Fears that I May Cease to Be,” “Fern Hill”) and Carter tends well to his own memories.
He tells a good story, to begin with, keeping his lines tight and almost all adjectives out:
I’d spend all night on possum hunts
with our neighbors, who were well
respected men, but poor….
(“Of Possum and Fatback”)
Walking through a fallow field,
I found an arrowhead ….
(“The History of a Point”)
She loved to laugh
and often laughed alone ….
Some might not see these lines, in their plainness, as poetry, but poetry is the art of making the memorable out of the ordinary. What is most pleasing to me in lines like these is not that they are plain talk, but that they convey an illusion of plain talk; they are considerably better than we normally sound.
Nothing is more important to a poet than being able to get out of a poem when it’s time to leave. Jimmy Carter is especially good at seeing that his poems don’t just stop, but close. Even without reading the poems that lead to the following resolutions, you know that the poem is over, and that it’s been closed down with skill and grace.
The owner went to every shack
And gave, as he thought any Christian should,
the locked-in men a choice: to pay
all they owed him, pack their household goods
and then by sundown move away
or, come first light, be in the field again.
I never doubted they would stay.
A buck a day wasn’t bad for then.
(“The Day No One Came to the Peanut Picker”)
…She’d laugh about what good times there had been,
and tell me what she thought I ought to do
in Washington, where I was working then.
…a copy of the stone
that honors now the beauty he set free
from a godhead of his own.
(“A President Expresses Concern…”)
And I like the directness of the poetry, its lack of coyness, that on a first reading we know where we are and what’s going on. The poet has the courage to make sense. I like it that the lines are coherent units of rhythm, sense, and syntax at the same time.
The poetry can speak for itself, of course, but it might be useful to caution those reading it for the first time not to be misled by its deceptive simplicity; to hear how the lines complete themselves, never ending as tricky truncations, yet how well they raise an expectation that sends the eye down the page—except for the closing lines, which suspend that expectation and stop the eye; to notice the arguments of the poems, how consistently inductive they are, moving onward from an event to an insight.
Donald Justice used to say to students who showed him poems, “Film it,” a nod to Pound’s admonition that “a poem is as good as it is dramatic.” See what good scenes Jimmy Carter’s poems are, how they play out. And see the humor in the lines. And the sadness, the awful honesty. The humanity. And see the poetry in all of that.
Miller Williams (1930-2015) was director of the University of Arkansas Press (which he helped found) for almost twenty years. Williams was also the founding editor of New Orleans Review.1