AUGUSTA, Maine – Many Mainers know Democratic Gov. Janet Mills as a level-headed leader, a pragmatic politician or even a former tough-minded prosecutor. But there’s another side to the governor — she’s a poet.
“If more politicians knew poetry, and more poets knew politics, I am convinced the world would be a little better place in which to live,” Mills said, quoting John F. Kennedy at her inauguration last month.
Her inner poet emerged after she dropped out of Colby College and headed to San Francisco for the Summer of Love before returning to college and later attending the University of Maine School of Law.
Mills, who is addressing a joint session of the Legislature on Tuesday to discuss her goals for her second term, said it was in San Francisco in 1967 that she began composing poetry in her head to counter the daylong drudgery of typing forms at an insurance company to pay the bills.
Decades later, sitting behind her desk in the State House, Mills said she remains convinced that poetry and the arts are essential to being well rounded and understanding the world.
“I think it behooves us as public policymakers and public officeholders to extend our intellects as broadly as we can,” Mills said. “Poetry and reading are a way of learning the world and opening our eyes and ears to what other people are experiencing.”
Two of her early poems were published in 1975 in “Balancing Act: A Book of Poems by Ten Maine Women,” compiled by Agnes Bushell, of Portland, who was frustrated that male publishers were giving short shrift to the poetry of women.
The words of Mills, then a law student, stood out from the other poets, Bushell said. One of her poems was entitled, “He Looks in the Metal Waters,” about a man’s gloomy breakfast routine, and the other was about introspection and irony, “This Fussy Fatality.”
“Culture isn’t dead. We have a governor who’s a poet. How great is that?” said Bushell, who has since published “Balancing Act 2: An Anthology of Poems by Fifty Maine Women.”
Mills, whose father gave her a journal at age 5 and whose mother was an English teacher, enjoys transforming journal notes into verse on subjects ranging from the birth of her granddaughter to a painting of a snowy owl by Jamie Wyeth.
When her husband of three decades, Stanley Kuklinski, died, Mills recorded her memories of him in a poem, recalling loons and tall trees, and writing of “following the river / to another trail.”
As governor, Mills served on a committee that selected the state’s current poet laureate, Julia Bouwsma. and she restored poetry to inaugurations. Last month, her second inauguration featured not one, but two poets — Bouwsma and Richard Blanco, former President Barack Obama’s inaugural poet.
Blanco read a poem that he penned, but not before lauding Mills as “an amazing poet in her own right.”
Wesley McNair, University of Maine at Farmington professor emeritus, recalled Mills attending poetry readings in her hometown, and said prose makes her a better leader.
“Its beauty comes from the truths it tells,” he said of poetry. “You can’t be a poet without understanding the world and the people in it, and having a compassion toward them.”
Mills, 75, said she doesn’t write political poetry, but the poem for her granddaughter’s birth started with a stanza about male politicians who “Yell on the TV.”
The poem, written in the hospital waiting room while the TV blared, quickly shifted to hopefulness and optimism surrounding her newborn granddaughter.
“Eyes and ears / Ready to know / Everything that is new, / Everything that is,” she wrote. “A brain ready / To learn, / A heart ready / To love. / That is your god / Warming your own heart, / That is your god / holding your hand / So tight / Never letting you / Go.”
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