As a nation mourns the passing of a Great American, all sorts of interesting stories about Senator John McCain are being re-told to a national audience thirsting for examples of courage, character and principled leadership. I think my favorite is in this article, where a crew from Comedy Central got on McCain’s campaign bus during his Presidential campaign, set up cameras, and asked him who his favorite poet was.
This is a typical gotcha move in what passes for today’s political theatre. The idea here, of course, is that politicians probably don’t have a favorite poet. It was a great opportunity to make candidate McCain look dumb. The article goes on to describe McCain’s answer: his favorite poet is Robert Service.
The Comedy Central crew, perhaps thinking they might have their subject over-reaching, asks him to recite his favorite poem from Robert Service. The article then states:
And that’s what McCain did. After a bumpy push-off, by one witness’s account, he ran through all 14 stanzas of “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” Service’s great ballad that deathlessly begins
There are strange things done in the
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run
cold . . .
The part of the story that really hit me was this comment McCain, a former prisoner of war and torture victim, made to the (undoubtedly disappointed) Comedy Central crew:
As they were breaking down their camera equipment, McCain mentioned offhandedly how he had come to memorize “Sam McGee.”
“The guy in the cell next to me,” he said, “it was his favorite poem. He used to tap it to me on the wall, in Morse Code. That’s how I memorized it.”
Can you imagine how small they must have felt when they walked off that bus?
We are surrounded by stories of craven “leadership” in the political, cultural, religious and commercial spheres. But part of that is because they make for good stories. But every one of us can list several people in our lives who are humble, honest, and demonstrate teamwork and service in how they live their lives and execute in their careers.
These people are not the subject of stories, but never forget that they’re more plentiful than the news of the day might otherwise indicate.
Additionally, let me say a word about the benefit of poetry. A poem is meant to be experienced rather than ruthlessly interrogated – as this wise and hilarious poem by Billy Collins captures. Poems are counter-cultural because they ask us to do things our electronic gadget age suffocates: pausing, re-reading, considering, contemplating.
Poetry can be a great way to transition into a place of deep work, a sustained period of intellectual engagement and focus.
Your assignment: if you cannot recite one poem by heart – or a few stanzas of one – consider choosing one and committing it to memory. I use this app when I’m on a plane and looking for something to do aside from brain-dead scrolling through addictive social media.
Go memorize a poem, and know that if someone like John McCain could learn a poem via tappings from the prisoner in the cell next to him, you can as memorize a few lines and be better for it.