In defense of poet Jimmy Carter, Tony Snow deserved an earful
In early March of 1995, almost twenty-eight years ago today, I received a short handwritten thank you note from President Jimmy Carter.
It’s still one of my most prized possessions, not just because it was from a former President of the United States…
But because of what it represented… to me, to Jimmy Carter, and to every writer who dares to send their work out into the world.
You see, in his short note, President Carter wasn’t thanking me for any dramatic act of valor, lifesaving heroics, or service to my country.
He was thanking me for defending poets and writers against armchair critics everywhere.
At the time, Tony Snow was a critic for the Detroit News, and his column was syndicated in our local newspaper, The Cincinnati Enquirer.
That was where I first read Snow’s column, “Not a poet and doesn’t know it,” reviewing President Carter’s book of poetry, Always a Reckoning and Other Poems.
Snow’s column was so vicious, so condescending, and so petty that I found myself furious on Carter’s behalf as well as on behalf of every writer who ever dared to put pen to paper.
Women Writing for (a) Change
So I sat down and drafted a passionate and rather pissed-off response to Tony Snow, and I shared it in my small writing group at Women Writing for (a) Change that night.
I said, among other things…
“No one asked you to be judge and jury both, passing your objective and omniscient judgment upon all the men and women of the world who have the immense courage required to put their lives on paper.”
“I sense a distinct lack of that personal and spiritual courage in yourself. Instead, you hide behind words of criticism designed to sap men’s strength.”
I told him, “President Carter has risked more, lived more, and acted more courageously in the spirit of preserving humanity than any sarcastic self-aggrandizing critic.”
I was on quite a roll. To be frank, looking back, I’m sort of shocked at how aggressive I was!
When I finished, one of the women in my group said, “You should send President Carter a copy of your letter.”
I laughed and said, “How? It’s not like I’ve got his personal address.”
And she said, “Send it to his presidential library. I’m sure the local librarian can get you the address.” (Mind you, this was long before you could “google” such things.)
Stamped the envelopes
Later that week, with their encouragement and the address of the library in hand, I mailed my response to Tony Snow, sent a letter to the Cincinnati Enquirer, and sent copies of both letters to The Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum.
A few weeks later, I was surprised to see a crisp, heavy-weight envelope from The Jimmy Carter Presidential Library in my mailbox.
When I opened the envelope, I found a copy of my letter with a short handwritten note from President Carter.
It said, “To Marcella Allison, Thanks for these copies of your letter. Snow deserved your scathing attack.” – Jimmy Carter
I’ve pasted a copy of my entire “scathing attack” at the bottom of this email, along with Tony Snow’s “pathetic exercise in pettiness,” as I dubbed his review.
Why this matters
I share them with you first because I’ve been thinking about Jimmy Carter as he’s been in the news lately. His family recently announced that he has entered hospice care.
But more importantly, I share my response with you in case you, too, should ever find yourself on the receiving end of a vicious attack of criticism.
In that case, you must pull out my defense of writers and poets everywhere and remind yourself that YOU have the guts to create.
You are to remember, as another president, Theodore Roosevelt, famously put it, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.”
It is the man (or woman) in the arena who counts.
You are to remember, as I told Mr. Snow, “The life of the writer requires more fortitude, perseverance, and spirit than ever did the life of the critic.”
So keep creating, keep showing up, and keep publishing your work.
If Jimmy Carter can withstand the slings and arrows of a critic like Tony Snow, you can too.
Thank you for reading this post. If you would like to receive Marcella’s Musings directly to your inbox before they show up here, take a minute and sign up below.
If you know anyone who might enjoy these reflections on life, business, and entrepreneurship, please share them.
Here is the syndicated column that appeared in the Cincinnati Enquirer in February of 1995
“Not a poet and doesn’t know it” by Tony Snow
Poets and presidents have one thing in common: They are incorrigible exhibitionists.
While almost everyone loves the occasional warmth of the spotlight, only a few obsessed, only a blessed few have the power to transform a moment into a memory. First-rate politicians and scribes express what we feel but cannot say. Their easy ways of doing the impossible leave audiences limp with awe.
Only the foolish and brave dare to compete with immortals. Mediocre mimics attract only laughter and jeers. They set out to perform heroic acts but instead call attention to that most human of weaknesses – the inability to accept one’s shortcomings.
Which brings us to Jimmy Carter. The 39th president of the United States will do almost anything to celebrate his yearnings, and last week, he indulged his inner child by publishing. A tome titled Always A Reckoning and Other Poems.
That took brass. Just about everyone has scrolled out a sappy ode to love or loss. But most folks packed the dear treasures away in a dark corner, mementos of more innocent times.
That’s the only decent thing to do. No form of writing requires more discipline, time or genius than a well-shaped piece of verse. Professional writers tremble in fear at the mere mention of a poetry assignment, and hacks should not attempt to follow in the steps of Yates or Elliot.
Yet here comes Jimmy Carter, the humble carpenter, man of peace and potential healer of rifts from Bosnia to Yankee Stadium. This immensely busy man has seen fit to draft and collect 44 poems, which he has grouped under the themes of “People”, “Places”, “Politics”, and “Private Lives”.
Carter’s publicist praised his “moving, wide-ranging and immensely personal” work. But Americans have learned in the Age of Oprah that not every moving personal function merits, admiration or even public viewing. A very fine line separates self-expression from pornographic tackiness.
To be fair, the former chief executive’s volume includes some well-crafted lines. Consider his description of checker-playing “idlers”, watching a man who had been bilked into buying a lame mule:
“They had all heard
how bad the man had been out swapped.
They found it strange to see him there
with just a bridal in distress.”
He has created a delightful image, but he has not birthed a poem. The passage is a paragraph with funny line breaks, and it has the rare distinction – at least for this volume – of making very little mention of its writer.
More often, the Homer of Plains invites attention by tiptoeing, a rope stretched between the extremes of psychological nudity and light comedy:
“When some poets came to Plains one night,
two with guitars, their poems taught
us how to look and maybe laugh
at what we were and felt and thought.
After that, I rushed to write
in fumbling lines why we should care
about a distant starving child.”
These lines give one an overwhelming urge to hug him and say, “It’s all right. You have other gifts.”
In modern annals, only Abraham Lincoln managed to make politics sound like a calling from heaven. Theodore Roosevelt wrote well, but not lyrically. Benjamin Disraeli churned out a few passable novels, but his strength lay in the hard business of cutting deals. Goethe made himself a fixture in the court of his day – but nobody remembers what he did there, beyond a few dalliances with other men’s wives.
Jimmy Carter has not discovered untilled ground, despite his high ambitions. His reflections merely strengthen his reputation as a man most comfortable when clad in a sandwich board that reads: “Saint for hire.”
But give our hero credit: He has a knack for poignancy. Just about everything he does reminds people of their own futile yearnings. Carter has become our national nebbish, a man who will continue to strip in public until people stop laughing and start clapping.
Randall Jarrell, the best poetry critic America ever produced, described Carter’s predicament – our predicament – when he wrote about the bad poems that arrived at his door.
“The ‘worthless’ books come in day after day, like the cries and truck sounds from the street,” he sighed. “In the bad type of the thin pamphlets, in hand-set lines on imported paper, people’s hard lives and hopeless ambitions have expressed themselves more directly and heartbreakingly than in any work of art: It is as if the writer had sent you their ripped out arms and legs with ‘This is a poem’ scrolled on them in lipstick.”
And here is my “scathing response” to Mr. Snow
Dear Mr. Snow,
I found your enclosed column, a pathetic exercise in pettiness. No one asked you to be judge and jury both, passing your objective and omniscient judgment upon all the men and women of the world who have the immense courage required to put their lives on paper. I sense a distinct lack of that personal and spiritual courage in yourself. Instead, you hide behind words of criticism designed to sap men’s strength.
Do not include me when you say “our” predicament. It is NOT mine. I freely risk putting pen to paper with neither fear of embarrassment nor shame. The books Mr. Jarrell described are not worthless. They are the best of people’s hearts laid bare for us. Those of us who are willing to look, listen, and feel these lives, choose to honor them instead of ridicule them. The life of the writer requires more fortitude, perseverance, and spirit than ever did the life of the critic.
I have no doubt that this very letter will become another example for your file of “pornographic tackiness.” However, the next time someone sends you their “ripped out arm with ‘this is a poem’ scrawled on it in lipstick”, I suggest that you stand in awe of the power of humanity to persevere through this trial we call life. Mr. Carter has risked more, lived more, and acted more courageously in the spirit of preserving humanity than any sarcastic self-aggrandizing critic.
Should you choose to send me your limb, Mr. Snow, it would be met with gentleness, celebrated with respect, and honored. When you send me your S.H.I.T (Sarcastic, Human-reducing, Insensitive, Tome), it makes me angry. Your words harm and hurt all those who struggle to make meaning out of their lives in words. A task that is much needed in our violent, reductive, separatist world.
I agree that there are poems that move me more than others. I stand in awe of the power of Audre Lorde’s poems. But that does not mean that I must “dispose” of all those words that do not move me. If someone’s arm doesn’t move you, why not simply ignore it? Why do you feel the need to cook it and serve it with mint jelly for dinner?
At this time in America, we need poetry, all kinds, shapes and forms as much or more than the very air we breathe. In her poem, Power, from The Black Unicorn, Audre Lorde writes, “The difference between poetry and rhetoric is being ready to kill yourself instead of your children.” I hope you too will learn to use the power of poetry to strip on paper instead of using rhetoric to kill the spirit that is our hope for the future.