Jimmy Carter: New York Times Bestselling Poet!
Farmer, Politician, Humanitarian, Author, Husband, Father and Poet
For a decade, in the 1980s and ’90s, I was the editor and/or publisher of six books by Jimmy Carter. His wife, Rosalynn, coauthored one and wrote another of her own. The experience – we sat at the kitchen table in their house at meals in Plains, held hands and said grace – was indelible. In one of his acknowledgments, he said I was their “publisher, editor, referee, and friend.”
Carter’s great accomplishments will be described elsewhere. So I will focus here on one – Always a Reckoning and Other Poems, published by Times Books/Random House in 1994. I should also mention The Little Baby Snoogle-Fleejer, a children’s book that his daughter, Amy, illustrated and we published a bit later.
Thinking about it now, I realize how far outside my usual specialties poetry and children’s books were. I have written an account of those years working with Carter in my book An Especially Good View: Watching History Happen. And I want to recognize his longtime literary agent, Lynn Nesbit, who understood that the president and I were, in some ways, unconventional partners.
When Carter and Nesbit first sent me the poems in a package, probably in 1992, I was baffled. I finally wrote him to the effect that he was “likely to be judged not as a former president but as an amateur poet and the reaction might well be harsh in what is a cynical world.” In other words, a rejection.
A few months later, Carter sent me a piece of paper headed “To Peter Osnos.” (Carter never used “Dear” in his communications.) On the page Carter had pasted a poem torn from The New Yorker called “The Sea of Serenity,” and underneath it he wrote, by hand,
Poems editors seem to buy
Don’t make sense, lack rhyme and rhythm
If they don’t amuse or edify
What else should we do with ’em.
As I wrote in my memoir, “Who am I, I wondered, to tell a former president of the United States he couldn’t publish a book of poetry if he wanted to? Carter had taken lessons from Miller Williams, a prominent poet who had appeared at his inauguration. I asked for the poems and sent them to three people in the Random House building for their judgment. Knopf had a proper poetry editor, Crown had just published poetry by Jimmy Stewart, and Villard had had a huge success with a book of bromides by Robert Fulghum called All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.
“We came out somewhere between genuine poetry and the cachet of a celebrated author. One of our copy editors was herself a poet and she took on the book. Carter asked a sixteen-year-old named Sarah Elizabeth Chuldenko to do the illustrations.”
Here is the start of a poem called “Rosalynn”:
She’d smile and birds would feel they no longer
Had to sing, or it may be I failed
To hear their song.
Within a crowd, I’d hope her glance might be
For me but knew that she was shy and wished to be alone.
Enough time has elapsed to disclose that the advance was $75,000, a large sum for poetry, but not much for an ex-president. The book went on the New York Times bestseller list as nonfiction and stayed there for two months.
The reviews were surprisingly friendly, while noting that the author was not your typical poet. I don’t remember a single snarky one. Booklist wrote: “If Carter’s book of poems represents vanity publishing on the grand scale – his poetic persona doesn’t sound or seem at all vain.”
After I left Random House, Carter began to be published by Simon & Schuster with considerable commercial success. We stayed in touch from time to time, as recently as when he was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2015. He had had a good life, he emailed me, and was at personal peace with the outcome. And then he got well.
History’s judgment on Jimmy Carter will doubtless cover his trajectory to the presidency, his defeat, and his exemplary post-presidency. Poetry may not be one of his greatest legacies, but his commitment to honorable goals, which was so much of his character, was in that book.