A Well-Versed Statesman For Jimmy Carter, new poetry expresses 'deep inner feelings'

January 18, 1995|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Sun Staff Writer

Add another line to the resume of Jimmy Carter: The former president and peacemaker is also a poet. His latest round of jet-hopping is devoted not to diplomacy but to promoting his first book of poetry, "Always a Reckoning," a revealing look at the emotions of the 39th president.

We have known him as peanut farmer, poor man's home builder, preacher on the national malaise and submarining aide to Adm. Hyman Rickover. We knew he occasionally lusted in his heart for women other than his wife.

But in "Always a Reckoning," Mr. Carter's ninth book, we see a white Southern boy discovering race division in the strange deference of his black buddies; a son struggling to get closer to his father; a husband still in love with his wife of 48 years; a solitary trout fisherman finding that "Testing oneself is best when done alone."

The private emotions expressed in many of the poems grew from the act of struggling with the poetic form, Mr. Carter says.

"I could not have said these things in prose or public speech," he says in a telephone news conference yesterday morning from New York City. "It just seemed a more natural way to express deep inner feelings in poetry rather than prose."

At 70, Mr. Carter joins Abraham Lincoln and John Quincy Adams in a trio of American presidents who have published poetry. He also joins what may be a more exclusive club of poets whose work actually sells.

Times Books of New York, which had never published poetry before, won't say how well the book has sold since it was published Jan. 9, but a spokeswoman says that a second edition the book has already been printed and more than 75,000 copies have been produced. In the United States these days, a poet is doing well to have 2,000 copies of a book printed, says Jane Ludlam, managing editor of Poets & Writers magazine in New York.

"I'm not saying I'm a superb classical poet," Mr. Carter says. "But I think people enjoy the poems."

His telephone interview with reporters is part of a nine-city, coast-to-coast book publicity tour that included a book-signing at Borders Books & Music in Rockville last evening.

Mr. Carter started his day yesterday in New York on "Live with Regis and Kathie Lee," where his hosts seem more interested in his early romance with Rosalynn Carter than his literary pursuits. Mr. Carter told them that writing poetry with the intensity he has in the last few years has been "a new and strange thing for me."

He says he plans a second book of poetry and calls the exercise "a mind-stretching experience for me . . . I really have found it fascinating and enjoyable."

Mr. Carter began writing his first poems to Rosalynn in the early 1950s during the long idle hours aboard submarines. In 1953, he says, he became enamored of Dylan Thomas, whom he considers the 20th century's best poet.

He's been studying poetry more intensely since the early 1980s, when he met Miller Williams, an Arkansas writer whom Mr. Carter calls his poetic mentor.

Mr. Williams recommended a couple of textbooks on poetry, one had written, one he co-wrote. Thus Mr. Carter -- engineer, student of nuclear physics at Georgia Tech, graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy -- began his informal poetic study. This included frequent critiques via mail and telephone from Mr. Williams, a director of the University of Arkansas Press in Fayetteville who has published seven books of poetry, 27 books in all.

In the 44 poems published in "Always a Reckoning," Mr. Carter demonstrates "a surprisingly fine poetic sensibility," says Mr. Williams, who taught English at the university for 10 years. Mr. Williams says he admires Mr. Carter's use of simple, strong language and spare verse.

"Perhaps more than anything else, he knows when to shut up," says Mr. Williams, praising Mr. Carter's ability as a storyteller and his gift for character portrayal.

The 44 poems, half of which have already been published in small literary magazines, describe a cast of characters that includes his mother, Miss Lillian, his motorcycle-riding sister, his father, and a childhood neighbor named Rachel Clark, a black woman who lived in a shack with walls made of newspaper.

Alongside the warm memories of his youth in Plains, Mr. Carter shows the dark side of his home town. We meet a venal county politician and also the youthful Jimmy Carter selling peanuts in town and learning "how merchants cheat, which married men/Laid half-a-dollar whores, not always white;/ The same ones touting racial purity/And Klansmen's sheeted bravery at night."

In a review published in Newsweek on Jan. 9, Jack Kroll praises Mr. Carter's candor, but notes that he comes close to "embarrassing himself" in a love poem to Rosalynn. "Carter is an amateur poet," writes Mr. Kroll, "which is not the same thing as lousy."

John Sitter, chairman of the English department at Emory University in Atlanta, where Mr. Carter is on the faculty, says Mr. Carter has written "an unpretentious book," with a "nice, deft touch."

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