Whereas: Stories from the People’s House

Edition for Educators—National Poetry Month

John Steven McGroarty/tiles/non-collection/4/4-26-McGroarty-2014_056_000-1.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives Author of numerous books and dramas, John Steven McGroarty was elected to Congress after serving two years as California's poet laureate.
When people invoke the great speeches of Congresses past, they often imagine the studied structure of Henry Clay of Kentucky, or the righteous oratory of Robert Elliott of South Carolina, or the witticisms of Thomas Brackett Reed of Maine. The House has counted many accomplished public speakers among its ranks, including would-be poets like John Quincy Adams, who earned the nickname “Old Man Eloquent” during his storied 17-year career in Congress.

Adams was far from alone in his iambic aspirations. Several Members of Congress published volumes of poetry either before or after their service in Congress, some as stand-alone volumes and others as part of edited collections. Orleans Territorial Delegate Julien de Lallande Poydras boasted having written the “first poetical work printed in Louisiana in 1779.” John Steven McGroarty of California served two years as his state's poet laureate before winning election to Congress in 1935. Five-term Kentucky Representative Maurice Hudson Thatcher even published his life story under the straightforward title Autobiography in Poetry.

Lyrical poetry has also found its way into American political campaigns. While today’s political candidates tend to select songs with lyrics to match their campaign’s themes, older campaigns took a more writerly approach. Campaign songs in the nineteenth century typically borrowed a tune or meter from a poem or rhyme popular at the time, repurposing them with patriotic sentiment and plenty of praise for the candidate of choice.

This Edition for Educators celebrates the tradition of poetry in all its forms in the history of the U.S. House of Representatives.

John Quincy Adams Memorial Ribbon/tiles/non-collection/4/4-26-JQA-Ribbon-2015_018_000-3.xml Collection of the U.S. House of the Representatives
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This memorial ribbon for John Quincy Adams was sold in New York, far from Adams’ funeral in the U.S. Capitol. Beneath his portrait, a poem (appropriated from a book of notable epitaphs from British graveyards) remembered him as both “resolute and immovable” and “generous & of exceeding good nature.”

Featured Highlights

Congressman and Poet John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts
A man of many talents, Congressman John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts was a poet as well as a statesman. On April 16, 1831, while serving in the 22nd Congress (1831–1833), Adams penned the epic poem, “Dermot MacMorrogh, or The Conquest of Ireland.” Adams once confessed, “Could I have chosen my own genius and condition, I should have made myself a great poet.”

The Annual House Page Banquet at the Mayflower Hotel
On July 25, 1937, the House Pages met at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, DC, for a banquet sponsored by Representative Joseph B. Shannon of Missouri. First organized in 1932, Shannon’s gala—which featured a variety of activities such as poetry readings and music—honored the House’s Pages and became an annual event during his six terms in office.

A Joint Meeting to Celebrate the Birth of President Dwight D. Eisenhower
On March 27, 1990, Congress celebrated the centennial of the birth of President Dwight D. Eisenhower with a Joint Meeting. The two-hour ceremony included speeches, performances by military bands, and a poetry reading. Both Democrats and Republicans wore “I Like Ike” buttons to show their appreciation for the World War II hero and popular two-term President.

Featured Exhibition

Original Text of Political Poems and Songs
Political campaigns in the nineteenth century frequently featured original (or broadly customized) songs and poetry written to drum up support and generate excitement for candidates. These selected poems referenced in the first essay of Hispanic Americans in Congress, 1822–2012 demonstrate the campaign tactics and themes of New Mexican Delegates Miguel Antonio Otero and Mariano Sabino Otero as well as Puerto Rican Resident Commissioner Luis Muñoz Rivera.

Featured Objects from the House Collection

Poet Laureate Howard Nemerov Address/tiles/non-collection/4/4-26-Laureate-PA2017_09_0031.xml
Carl Sandburg before Congress/tiles/non-collection/4/4-26-Sandburg-PA2014_04_0025-1.xml
Keep the Faith - Adam Clayton Powell/tiles/non-collection/4/4-26-ACP-2007_281_000a.xml
Flag Series Postcard/tiles/non-collection/4/4-26-Flag-Postcard-2006_027_000-4.xml
They Gotta Quit Kickin' My Dawg Around/tiles/non-collection/4/4-26-Dawg-2016_141_000a-4.xml
United States Album/tiles/non-collection/4/4-26-USAlbum-2010_016_016-2.xml
Poet Laureate Howard Nemerov Addresses Joint Meeting
At a Joint Meeting in 1989, Poet Laureate of the United States Howard Nemerov leaned forward as he read a poem about the stakes of representational democracy.
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
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Sandburg before Joint Session
Carl Sandburg, a poet and scholar of Abraham Lincoln, spoke from the rostrum of the House Chamber in 1959. His address to a Joint Session of Congress commemorated the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth. Although he spoke in prose, his words maintained the cadence and evocativeness of poetry.
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
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“Keep the Faith, Baby!” Record
In January 1967 legendary civil rights leader and Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. issued this recording as a retort to his House colleagues, who stripped him of his committee chairmanship that month following a series of legal issues.
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
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Flag Series No. 4 Postcard
As America entered World War I, patriotic postcards sprang up by the thousands. The postcards in this series used different national symbols, but all featured a flag at the top of the image and a sentimental poem at the bottom of the card.
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They Gotta Quit Kickin’ My Dawg Aroun’
In 1912, Presidential aspirant and Speaker Champ Clark of Missouri adopted a folk tune from his home state as a campaign anthem. In addition to sheet music, the song’s title appeared on campaign buttons and dog trinkets.
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
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United States Album
The United States Album was big, beautiful, and ambitious. Printed autographs of all the Members of the 28th Congress and other government officers popped up on almost every page, encouraging owners to use the blank pages for their autograph collecting. The copy in the House Collection contains not only autographs but also handwritten snippets of poetry.
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Featured People

Many Representatives have found ways to fold their love of the poetic arts into their Congressional service. In the modern era, two Members of Congress proposed legislation supporting poetry half a century apart.

Nan Wood Honeyman of Oregon
A close friend of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and diehard New Deal supporter, Representative Nan Wood Honeyman of Oregon brought an eclectic set of interests to Washington. The first woman to represent Oregon on Capitol Hill, Honeyman had studied music at the Finch School in New York City, but she also had poetry in her blood; her father Charles Erskine Scott Wood was a popular American author and poet. In 1937, Honeyman proposed a national poetry award to bring the United States in line with practices in Europe that prioritized artistic expression. “I think that we could well emulate some of these old nations in the recognition of the arts,” she said. Members of the Library Committee, however, balked at the annual appropriation Honeyman intended to accompany the award, and the proposal withered.

Spark Matsunaga of Hawaii
Nearly 50 years later, Spark Matsunaga of Hawaii had considerably more luck passing legislation to officially recognize the achievements of American poets. A poetry enthusiast, Matsunaga once composed an impromptu haiku during a congressional luncheon with the Prime Minister of Japan. Like Honeyman, Matsunaga felt the country lagged European nations in its respect for the arts. Following his election to the Senate, Matsunaga proposed a bill creating the office of the United States Poet Laureate in the Library of Congress. “It is my hope that the work of the future poet laureate . . . will also reflect our Nation’s great diversity—its multiethnic, multicultural, multiracial heritage, its strength and compassion, and its democratic idealism,” Matsunaga said shortly before the bill passed by voice vote in 1985.

Featured Oral History

Singing for Equal Access
In her oral history, the Honorable Mary Rose Oakar remembers when she and Representatives Barbara Boxer and Marcy Kaptur used music to make a case for equal access to the House Gym.

The Honorable Mary Rose Oakar, U.S. Representative of Ohio Interview recorded March 2, 2017 Transcript (PDF)
Maurice H. Thatcher/tiles/non-collection/4/4-26-Thatcher-PA2016_05_0022a.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives Congressman Maurice Thatcher, who campaigned for the role of Herbert Hoover's Commerce Secretary during the 1928 Republican Convention in Kansas City, Missouri, funneled his love of poetry into his autobiography.

Featured Blogs

An Ode to Poetry at the Capitol
During a Joint Meeting honoring the bicentennial of Congress in 1989, Republican Leader Robert Michel of Illinois suggested that what Congress needed during the celebration was “not more congressional prose, but the fiery, living truth of great poetry.”

The Last Will and Testament of a Lame Duck
Just one week after the Twentieth Amendment was ratified, Representative Ruth Bryan Owen of Florida poked fun at her own predicament. Self-described as “the first Bryan who ran for anything and got it” (a glib reference to her father William Jennings Bryan’s three failed attempts at winning the Presidency), Owen lost the Republican nomination to her eastern Florida seat in June 1932. As the 72nd Congress (1931–1933) drew to a close, she composed a comic poem entitled “The Last Will and Testament of a Lame Duck,” and read it before a luncheon at the National Women's Press Club, on January 31, 1933.

This is part of a series of blog posts for educators highlighting the resources available on History, Art & Archives of the U.S. House of Representatives. For lesson plans, fact sheets, glossaries, and other materials for the classroom, see the website's Education section.

Categories: Edition for Educators