Artifact One: Barack Obama’s Early Poetry

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In the lead-up to The Choice 2012, FRONTLINE’s hotly anticipated dual biography of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, we’re publishing “The Artifacts of Character,” a series of rarely seen objects that elucidate key moments and experiences in the candidates’ lives. Each Monday and Thursday for the next three weeks, we’ll publish a new artifact for each candidate. Check back this afternoon for our first artifact from Mitt Romney.

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artifact one

Photo Credit: Occidental College Special Collections and College Archives

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Obama was a sophomore at Occidental College, a small liberal arts college in Los Angeles, when he started to develop an identity as a writer. At the time Obama was smart, disciplined and academically focused, according to some of his friends who spoke to FRONTLINE about their time at school together.

In a class on contemporary poetry, Obama bonded with a small group of classmates who all “self-identified as writers,” said Margot Mifflin, one of the aspiring poets in the class. They critiqued each other’s work and competed with each other for slots in the campus literary magazines, Feast and Plastic Laughter.

In that class, Obama wrote the poem “Pop,” which was accepted for publication in Feast. Mifflin told FRONTLINE the poem was about his grandfather. “[It] presents this very detailed portrait of the conflict between the boy who wants to be independent going up against the man who in some ways controls his life, but who he loves, and who is both an obstacle and an enabler in his life,” Mifflin said.

“Pop” and another poem, “Underground,” were published under his given name, in what’s believed to be the first time that the young man would identify himself in the public sphere as Barack Obama. He was leaving young Barry behind.

Coming Friday: A discussion of this week’s artifacts with David Maraniss (Barack Obama: The Story), Jodi Kantor (The Obamas), Michael Kranish and Scott Helman (The Real Romney) and Washington Post reporter Jason Horowitz.

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