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Jewish World Review Nov. 1, 1999/21 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760

Tony Snow

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Incorrigible exhibitionists -- POETS AND PRESIDENTS have one thing in common: They are incorrigible exhibitionists.

While almost everyone loves the occasional warmth of the spotlight, 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 scrawled out a sappy ode to love or loss. But most folks pack 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 shouldn't attempt to follow in the steps of Yeats or Eliot.

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 publicists praise 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 outswapped.

They found it strange to see him there

with just a bridle, 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 has 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 writers had sent you their ripped-out arms and legs with 'This is a poem' scrawled on them in lipstick."

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©1999, Creators Syndicate