On Poetry: How Writers Can Resist the President’s Agenda

For the Valley News
Published: 1/26/2017 10:00:09 PM
Modified: 1/26/2017 10:00:17 PM

After being asked to read at the Writers Resist reading in Brattleboro on the Sunday before Martin Luther King Day, I wrote the following essay as an explanation for why I found this particular event both a formidable moral and literary challenge.

This is both too easy and painfully difficult. Easy because as a fellow writer, poet and citizen, I feel as outraged and disheartened as Rep. John Lewis, who described the new leader of the free world as “not a legitimate president,” and difficult because I wonder what we as mere citizens can do to repair our democracy in the wake of the divisive election of Nov. 8.

How to reconcile this all too easy call to condemn the new president’s mean-spirited nature and dehumanizing policies, while at the same time reaching across the country’s partisan chasm in such a way that transcends politics with a poetry that “makes something happen,” something that proves wrong W.H. Auden’s claim that “poetry makes nothing happen”?

I don’t know. All I can think of are questions — questions I feel compelled to ask myself first as an imaginary other in practicing the difficult discipline of my resistance, the same discipline I strive to practice as a poet:

Do I love my neighbor, not just the one who votes like me, but the one who’s dying for lack of health care? Do I think that hatred trumps love? Do I believe in the common good? Do I think passionate intensity and selfless conviction are mutually exclusive? Do I believe in justice over prejudice? Do I believe that someone who says he’s going to help me economically while discriminating against my neighbors and fellow workers is in the end really going to help me? Do I believe that compassion is more than a shibboleth for elite liberals? Do I believe I can listen attentively to someone who holds political views that are the opposite of mine with the hope that we might find some common ground? Do I believe in both the spiritual and actual link between the highest principles of democracy and the human imagination?

So hardly a desiderata that may offend with any hint or perception of liberal hypocrisy, but an honest Socratic inquiry into the definition of the common good vis-à-vis the current oligarchic plutocracy that’s cannibalizing our democracy. Not easy, but essential, if my words are to resound past these local walls.

We failed tragically as Americans on Nov. 8 in our so-called ongoing democratic experiment, as did the delicate machinery of our electoral system. How can we think otherwise? In lieu of our lost voice and voices on the Hill that no longer shines so brightly, I would suggest we all become writers in our resistance, whether in spirit or on the page. No apologies or compromises.

Has a poet been chosen for the president elect’s inauguration? No. What poet would accept such an invitation? The democratic spirit of poetry itself recoils at the idea of sharing the stage with a man who would mock a handicapped reporter, brag about molesting women, traduce a fallen veteran and his family, espouse unabashed xenophobic and racist views in his anti-immigration speeches, invite the support of the alt-right and David Duke, ignore climate change, and so much more.

So in the absence of an inaugural poet, all citizens who agree with John Lewis’ assessment of the president must step up as self-chosen inaugural poets and “yawp” (Walt Whitman’s term for reading passionately) from the stages of our homes and workplaces. Citizens become witnesses, which qualifies us as unwitting poets, the best kind, and not apprentices. As the collective boss of our elected officials, why not start with the famous salvo of our new reality TV boss: “You’re fired.” It’s a sad start, but a poignant if risible reminder to the executive who has already shown how reluctant he is to move from his tower to the White House.

As a poet myself, who has probably already written too much, I hope against hope that we as poets and writers can find a common voice today and not tomorrow, one that rises up as a chorus across the country, in all its differences, with truths that are self-evident with regard to our common humanity and unalienable rights.

I would like to conclude with two poems. The first consists of a collage of tweets to the president from writers, activists, and leaders who didn’t have the cyber luxury of Twitter during their lifetimes but whose words continue to resonate as memorable bites of wisdom nonetheless. The second is a rather famous dirge written 98 years ago that continues to ring with prophetic power and relevance.

@AlbertCamus “I should be able to love my country and still love justice.”

@MartinLutherKing “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

@DorothyDay The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us?

@EmilyDickinson “I’m nobody. Who are you?”

@Shakespeare “The man that hath no music in himself,/ Nor is not mov'd with concord of sweet sounds,/ Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils.”

@WaltWhitman “These United States are essentially the greatest poem.”

Lastly, William Butler Yeats might have written the best description of how history’s wheel turns.

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it

Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again; but now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

On Jan. 20 a “rough beast” whose hour had come round too soon slouched to Washington to be adorned. I hope a lot of you will continue to raise your voices with “conviction” as a deafening demotic chorus that will supplant the president’s tweets and vitriol with a new American music that restores the harmony of enlightened democracy.

Chard deNiord is poet laureate of Vermont. He lives in Westminster West.

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