November 20, 2016

MEISEL | Poetry in a Time of Crisis

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Admittedly, during times of intense crisis or panic, most people aren’t running around asking what the poets think. My own interpretation of this fact is not that people don’t care what poets have to say. It’s rather that they don’t believe in any reason for listening to them (a faulty judgement that I suppose amounts to the same result). If we experience social upheaval, for example, what good would reading Wordsworth do? If we encounter history in palpable manifestations, why read a poet to understand that history? It would seem a bit strange to seek out an art form known widely for its inherent lack of political value to understand our common daily lives, permeated by politics as they are. After all, it’s an established fact that poetry is useless.

But if there’s one growing sentiment among poets and readers today, it’s at least the opposite of Auden’s famous axiom, “poetry does nothing.” I’ve heard many people disagree with this notion, and I would say that nowadays many of us could be willing to accept that poetry, in all of its forms, does “something.” Now, what it might do is up for debate. But I believe we’re seeing a growth of readers and poets who recognize that poetry can become, at its core, profoundly political and historical. This also means poets can begin to take on different cultural and social roles other than the stereotype of an apolitical romanticist. Perhaps the older conception of the poet — as a troublemaker whom Plato would not want in his ideal Republic — might be all the more relevant in the coming years of difficulty and turmoil we’re about to experience. Certainly, it’s easy to see that there could be usefulness in someone using language to understand and reflect on the emotional experiences of our present moment.

“It’s like the election wasn’t just an election but the portal to a horrifying alternate reality,” wrote poet Kathleen Rooney following the surprising-for-some events of November 8. While this comment represents only one emotional response to this month’s election results, it makes up one of the many online and literary replies published in the days that followed. On November 9, poet Danez Smith released the piece, “You’re Dead, America,” a work driven at first by anger and disgust, then marked by a shift towards communal resolve. Through sparse, understated lines, Smith recognizes the American project as a political failure — not only grounded in pain and hate, but also caught up in a failure to address that violence: “you’re dead, America//& where you died/grew something worse.” I also find it interesting that Smith’s poem was published through Buzzfeed who, fortunately, has been a frequent publisher of pieces which address current political situations. In contrast, Hannif Willis-Abdurraqib’s work, “The Day After the Election I Did Not Go Outside,” addresses the more heartbreaking experience of this moment in history, a feeling captured vividly in the lament, “oh country, my new and brief country. how I walk from you/ full & into the wreckage. how I wish you everywhere now./how I try to taste you in the air instead of blood.” The piece articulates a sensation of smoothness, memory, pain and nostalgia. Its power is channeled first through physical imagery, until the speaker commands the reader to “make a border around any place you are loved & call it yours.”

Here, we might even see how Abdurraqib is addressing a simple but salient question many of us felt after the election: what do we do now?  How can we confront the future? In instances like these, encounters with poetry and poets demand that we must change not only our societies and cultures but also ourselves. Perhaps this might amount to the first step in a broader series of changes whose importance everyone believes is so paramount in a post-election world. For me at least, poetry has helped stir this realization: if we are to continue into Trump’s divided, violent America, we must be able to understand each other. Not in a broader, bi-partisan sense. Don’t try to understand racists or the hateful. But for those of us who have identified the sickening moral backdrop of the Trump campaign, we must learn to live in radically different ways. In this dead America, which will eventually waste away under both systemic and interpersonal violence, we must “make a border” around ourselves and the communities that protect us. We should, as Abdurraqib says, “build what/ you must to keep the devils out.”

Stephen Meisel is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. His column  Appearances appears alternate Mondays this semester.