(Political) Poetry in the Time of Trump
Lamenting the gloomy prospects for our nation — and for his students — as a result of the 2016 presidential election, an English professor prepares to teach for the first time after the election and asks himself, “How does anyone walk into a classroom and teach a poem after Trump’s win?”
The professor, Blaine Greteman at the University of Iowa, had planned to present “an upbeat lecture on Walt Whitman and the great American idea of his great American poem ‘Song of Myself.’”
“But I’m an English professor, and my usual business is poetry.” Greteman writes, adding, “lessons in the finer points of prosody seem almost perverse in the wake of a campaign that swept to power by flouting introspection, critical thought, and tolerance—all the values central to a liberal arts education.”
I am sure Professor Greteman and his students will do just fine, for poetry — especially “political” poetry — is alive and well in the Time of Trump. As Greteman himself points out, while “poetry isn’t politics…it can be the fertile soil for our better selves.”
Greteman concludes with the final lines of one of W. H. Auden’s poems, written in 1939, which “as the world lurched to war, have never been more vital”:
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.
And indeed, while professor Greteman is not referring to political poetry per se, political satire, comedy, cartoons and poetry have been flourishing in the Time of Trump as “resistance-themed” expressions of aversion to Trump values, culture, policies and politics.
Political poetry has always been a part of the American landscape. The late Michael Silverstein, wrote a few years ago at The Moderate Voice:
The first recognized political commentators, the first political talking heads, the first true Op Ed professionals, were bards. Before there was even writing, members of ruling elites never really knew where they stood until the old blind guy with the lyre posted the insiders scorecard in rhyme.
Silverstein added, “Percy Shelley, whose ‘England in 1819’ is a marvelous example of such [political poetry] work, spoke of poets as being the legislators of the world.”
In that poem, quoted by Silverstein, Shelley wrote of:
Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know,
But leech-like to their fainting country cling,
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow…
Political poetry has been especially popular among liberals and especially “[w]hen times are dire.”
Alexandra Alter, at the New York Times, reminds us in “American Poets, Refusing to Go Gentle, Rage Against the Right,” how in recent decades, “American poets used the medium to oppose the Vietnam War and racial oppression. Many wrote raw, mournful poems after the Sept. 11 attacks, and pacifist poems protesting the war in Iraq.”
As an even more recent example, Alter points to the “new, politically engaged generation of young African-American, Latino and Asian poets” writing verses that address institutionalized bias, racism, civic identity and social justice — for which “there is an enormous appetite.’”
And times are dire today. Again, Alter:
Like virtually everything else in the Trump era, poetry has gotten sharply political these days. Writers are responding to this turbulent moment in the country’s history with a tsunami of poems that address issues like immigration, global warming, the Syrian refugee crisis, institutionalized racism, equal rights for transgender people, Islamophobia and health care.
The Trump era poets have “a powerful sense of urgency and reckoning and responsibility,” says Alter, “[they] are using social media to respond quickly to the news, posting new verses online.”
Danez Smith, who wrote a poem titled “You’re Dead, America” — a poem about losing faith in our country — hours after the Nov. 8 election, and published it on Buzzfeed the next day, says “There’s something beautiful about the poem that is needed right now…It might not be as powerful a couple of months from now.”
As Trump nears the 100-day mark of his administration “as the least popular chief executive in modern times… one whose base of support has not expanded since he took the oath of office” and without much to show for those 100 days (Trump: I think the 100 days is, you know, it’s an artificial barrier. It’s not very meaningful.”), poems documenting such a debacle are “needed right now,” and I am sure there will be plenty of them.
Here is an early one by a good friend, a combat vet and a patriot who has given us some sage voting advice before and doesn’t need to wait till the hundredth day to have his say:
Dear Mister President
Help me understand
What is your actual political stand?
Is it simply “fire — ready — aim”?
And say Obama is to blame?
In your desperate search for popularity
All you have done is increase America’s political polarity
Now you are clearly not a true Republican
For you threw all your primary opponents in the can
You have changed positions faster than a chicken on a hot tin plate
This is a fact that is not even up for debate
“China is a currency manipulator,” but now your best friend
“NATO is obsolete,” but now support you do lend
Russia is our new partner and “Putin could be my friend”
But now there are some real broken fences to mend
“I’ll build a Great Wall with Mexico and they will pay”
But it’s the Congress will pay, according to what we hear today
You promised a fantastic first 100 day
So what is now the state of the play?
All you’ve provided is total disarray
And now you even deny that the above you ever did say
Do you know what you’re doing?
Or just firing “bird shot” to keep your base swooning
A bungled “Muslim” ban you tried and failed to put in place
A failed repeal and replace Obama-care plan left egg on your face
OK, lots of Obama executive orders you cancelled with a pen
But we are waiting for some positive legislation for you to send
You are the butt of international jokes
With your inane Tweets and the alternate reality words that you spoke
The list goes on, it’s too long to detail
The bottom line is that you and your administration are “off the rail”
You praised WikiLeaks and a “Russian” connection investigation does follow
The White House is full of relatives and in questionable ethics you do wallow
Do you actually have any political philosophy?
Do you actually have any true policies to see?
Or are you as you appear
Just someone who will do anything for a cheer?
Read more “Poems of Resistance” here.
Lead image courtesy DonkeyHotey.com
Cross-posted from the Huffington Post