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Poetry and politics

2 August 2004

No-one would claim that literature and politics go together, which makes it even more astonishing that John Kerry, chosen this week as the Democratic candidate for the presidential election, should have taken the risky strategy of quoting poetry in his campaign speeches. In fact Kerry has gone one step further than that and used Let America be America again as a campaign slogan and the cornerstone of his message to American voters.

The poem, by the black poet Langston Hughes, is written from a radical - some would say communist - standpoint and harks back to the dream of the founding fathers. Kerry closed his speech in Pittsburgh on July 6 with these words: ‘Langston Hughes was a poet, a black man and a poor man. And he wrote in the 1930s powerful words that apply to all of us today. He said "Let America be America again. Let it be the dream that it used to be for those whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain, for those whose hand at the foundry - something Pittsburgh knows about - for those whose plow in the rain must bring back our mighty dream again."’

It’s hard to recall other American presidents who have quoted poetry as part of their campaign, although John F Kennedy did on occasion quote Robert Frost - and perhaps that is exactly the comparison that the Kerry campaign would like voters to make. But it’s a risky strategy, since the Democratic candidate lays himself open to being dismissed as an elitist dreamer, particularly when he’s up against the plain-speaking, anti-intellectual, often tongue-tied George W Bush.

But perhaps the sheer power of the poem itself is enough to overcome this. Hughes speaks straight to the heart, in words every American can understand, about regaining a sense of national purpose, a moral stance based on doing good in the world and acting responsibly as the leader of the free world. This sense of a global mission, tarnished though it may seem by recent events, is a powerful force in the American psyche. It’s good to see poetry taking centre stage again.