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An Ode to Poetry at the Capitol

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The following is a post by Michelle Strizever, photography and digital content specialist in the Office of Art and Archives of the U.S. House of Representatives. It originally appeared on the House History, Art & Archives blog.

At a Joint Meeting, Poet Laureate Howard Nemerov read a poem from the rostrum. (Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives)

During a Joint Meeting honoring the bicentennial of Congress in 1989, Minority 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.”

He turned the rostrum over to Howard Nemerov, Poet Laureate of the United States. In dark, tortoiseshell glasses, Nemerov leaned forward as he read a poem about the stakes of representational democracy.

Here at the fulcrum of us all,
The feather of truth against the soul
Is weighed, and had better be found to balance
Lest our enterprise collapse in silence.

Nemerov continued, his white hair short but messy, intoning the importance of compromise in lawmaking. The audience smiled, charmed and relaxed. The poem’s final stanza has been read as a moral about the checks and balances articulated in the Constitution. The poem ends with a metaphor of technology:

Praise without end for the go-ahead zeal
Of whoever it was invented the wheel;
But never a word for the poor soul’s sake
That thought ahead, and invented the brake.

Poet Laureate Carl Sandburg spoke about the life of Abraham Lincoln during a Joint Session in 1959. Seated behind him are then–Vice President Richard Nixon, left, and House Speaker Sam Rayburn. (Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives)

Like Nemerov, other poets have used democracy, the legislative process, and even the Capitol building as inspiration. Bards have offered praise for political balance and warnings about unchecked power. Carl Sandburg, a poet and scholar of Abraham Lincoln, spoke in 1959 at a Joint Session commemorating the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth. Although he spoke in prose, his words maintained the cadence and evocativeness of poetry: Of Lincoln, he explained, “Not often in the story of mankind does a man arrive on earth who is both steel and velvet, who is as hard as a rock and soft as drifting fog, who holds in his heart and mind the paradox of terrible storm and peace unspeakable and perfect.”

From 1949 to 1950, Elizabeth Bishop served as the Consultant in Poetry, which preceded the position of Poet Laureate, at the Library of Congress. With a westward-facing office in the Jefferson Building, she “looked out at the Capitol dome constantly,” she later said of those years. In “View of the Capitol from the Library of Congress,” she described the sights and sounds from her perch in the country’s great repository. In the poem, the Air Force Band plays on the steps of the East Front, but the sound doesn’t carry across the street. The poem teases out why, suggesting

Consultant in Poetry Elizabeth Bishop wrote a poem about the view of the Capitol from her office at the Library of Congress.

The giant trees stand in between,
I think the trees must intervene,

catching the music in their leaves
like gold-dust, till each big leaf sags.
Unceasingly the little flags
feed their limp stripes into the air,
and the band’s efforts vanish there.

Although Bishop later called it a “frivolous little poem,” “View of the Capitol from the Library of Congress” has been interpreted as a critique of military power. “The gathered brasses want to go / boom—boom,” the poem ends—but despite the desire to make a large bang, the sound doesn’t make it through to the public.

In 1993, Poet Laureate Rita Dove read “Lady Freedom Among Us” at a ceremony commemorating the 200th anniversary of the laying of the Capitol’s cornerstone. The Statue of Freedom had just been returned to the Capitol dome after being removed for cleaning. As Dove has explained, the poem imagines Lady Freedom as a homeless woman. The words command listeners to look at the figure and think deeply of her importance, rather than just pass her by. “don’t lower your eyes / or stare straight ahead to where / you think you ought to be going,” the poem begins in all lowercase letters. In 1994, the verse was published as a book, with images of the statue and the Capitol incorporated into the book design.

Seen in a new light, the figure of Lady Freedom emphasizes the importance of dignity and unity:

Poet Laureate Rita Dove’s poem “Lady Freedom Among Us” was published as a book, with images of the statue and the Capitol incorporated into the book design.

she has fitted her hair under a hand-me-down cap
and spruced it up with feathers and stars
slung over one shoulder she bears
the rainbowed layers of charity and murmurs
all of you even the least of you

The final stanza reads,

no choice but to grant her space
crown her with sky
for she is one of the many
and she is each of us

beginning and ending without capital letters or a period. Without punctuation, the lines of the poem seem to reach out into space as Freedom does, atop the Capitol, crowned with sky.

Sources: Congressional Record, House, 101st Cong., 1st sess. (2 March 1989): 3214; Report of the Joint Committee on Arrangements on the Commemoration Ceremony in Observance of the 150th Anniversary of the Birth of Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1959, 86th Cong., 1st sess., 1959, H. Doc. 211, 3–4; Elizabeth Bishop, “View of the Capitol from the Library of Congress,” The Complete Poems, 1927–1979 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983) 69; Richmond Times-Dispatch, 8 February 1994; and