“A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness…” – George Orwell
Well, that Two Minutes Hate is over. As I prepare for Donald J. Trump’s administration, I don’t imagine there are many of us ready to contemplate the shrouded, vestigial hate that has risen from inside our country. Trump’s politics and coalition of hate is one that harbors intractable injury out of proportion of reality. The hate demands honor. The hate feigns injustice. The hate cries out ‘I have been ignored.’ Already Trump’s inaugural address seems almost like an autopsy on the state of the soul of the nation.
We poets are uneasy observers of this historical turn. Usually we reflect on politics and history from the outside. This applies to me as well, and that is why in 2010 I called on American poets to be more engaged in the political process, sensing then—seeing in particular now—that the poet’s role, as master of language, “must also include public participation in the life of the Republic.” I wrote again on this website after the 2016 election that the battle between this writer and the newly elected president has been joined.
Inaugural poets singing praise to democracy and citizenship at inaugurations of Democratic presidents—Robert Frost in 1960, Maya Angelou in 1992, Miller Williams in 1996, Elizabeth Alexander in 2008, and Richard Blanco in 2012—have sought to offer understanding, often failing at profundity. When I think of the five inaugural poems as a group, I do feel obliged to point out how, while historical, they have each been quite forgettable. Given the fact that they were revised and completed prior to being delivered, they provided a deliberate if minimal effect. They promised nothing, raised few objections or expectations for the State, kept to tedious platitudes—
The land was ours before we were the land’s – Robert Frost
Lift up your eyes upon / This day breaking for you. / Give birth again / To the dream. – Maya Angelou
All this is in the hands of children, eyes already set / on a land we never can visit – Miller Williams
I know there’s something better down the road. – Elizabeth Alexander
One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores – Richard Blanco
At the same time I know these poems share several characteristics when you put them together and analyze them. One of the best analyses of Elizabeth Alexander’s can be found here by Brian Spears. Who can forget Julia Alvarez’s take down of “The Gift Outright”? I wrote about Blanco’s wan poem and President Obama’s second inauguration in this column.
As a group, the inaugural poems suggest a general interpretation of the United States as an amalgam, that the United States is not hollow or passive or indifferent, not apathetic. The inaugural poems are expressions of a large longing, an unquenchable ambition, an unfilled desire. They embrace e pluribus unum in the extreme. They are searching for words of the inner capacity that leads individual lives to fixate on perfecting the union. At least the poems want to push us in that direction—
Something we were withholding made us weak / Until we found out it was ourselves / We were withholding – Robert Frost
Each of you a bordered country, / Delicate and strangely made proud, / Yet thrusting perpetually under siege – Maya Angelou
We were many people coming together / cannot become one people falling apart – Miller Williams
Say it plain: that many have died for this day. / Sing the names of the dead who brought us here – Elizabeth Alexander
My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors, / each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day – Richard Blanco
Taken together the five inaugural poems do not conceal their affection for the principle that the people are stronger than the failures of the nation. So the inaugural poems call for love and humanity. They extol the human spirit over the empty vacuum of power. They embody the idea that America is self-transcending. We are dependent on each other, they say. We are our brothers’s keeper, they cry, we are our sisters’ keeper. We are lovers of our citizenship, we are lovers of our identities, and each others’. We cannot get along without each other, the poems say. America, the poems say, is an expression of all our longing, even when tragedy surfaces.
Now I ask, what poem could withstand the hate of this hour, a hate characterized by Vaclav Havel as “collective hate,” a hate that—
eliminates loneliness, weakness, powerlessness, a sense of being ignored or abandoned. This, of course, helps people deal with lack of recognition, lack of success, because it offers them a sense of togetherness. It creates a strange brotherhood, founded on a simple form of mutual understanding that makes no demands whatsoever. The conditions of membership are easily met, and no one need fear that he will not pass muster. What could be simpler than sharing a common object of aversion and accepting a common ‘ideology of injury’ that justifies the aversion expressed to that object? To say, for instance, that Germans, Arabs, Blacks, Vietnamese, Hungarians, Czechs, Gypsies or Jews are responsible for all the misery of the world, and above all for the despair in every wronged soul, is so easy and so understandable! You can always find enough Vietnamese, Hungarians, Czechs, Gypsies or Jews whose behaviour can be made to illustrate the notion that they are responsible for everything.
What poem, I ask, could reach the subconscious of the hate and the feeling that Donald Trump speaks from so often that he alone possesses the truth, that he is superhuman, a god, and deserves all our complete attention, loyalty, submission, obedience?
Might a poem achieve the highest acclaim by refusing to recognize that hate, or even pay attention to it, as a means to ridicule it? A poem that addresses other subjects in life and not that of the spoiled autocrat is a poem that refuses to worship hate.
Trump’s flaw, as I see it at this hour, includes both hatred and unhappy love. He is desperate because total love is unattainable, and yet he is consumed with attaining love. The evidence is clear, however, that Trump is not god, and so he is tormented. The world is shameful because it does not love him totally. Therefore the world is unjust, conspiring against him.
Poets too know something about the injustices of the world. We see how vague and incomprehensible the world can be. We see how eager the soul seeks to know what offends it. We know we are but stand-ins for others, arbitrary in our visions, interchangeable through time. Love, we know, is more important than poems. We have written for centuries in many languages of the obstacles to absolute love, to recognition, to truth, to order.
For Trump, he believes the world does not know his true worth. Therefore he hates the world.
For poets, we believe the world does not know our true worth. Therefore we seek more knowledge from living in the world and in the forms and visions of language.
Unlike Trump who seldom smiles, but smirks, who has no ability to joke, except to ridicule, who cannot fathom irony, especially about himself, who cannot laugh at himself because he cannot feel warmth authentically, who is quick to take offense, who is incapable of stepping outside himself and see he too is a fool, we poets find joy in the world, are keepers of the ironic, and know that poetry is one route to step outside ourselves into the transcendence of life.
Unlike Trump who lacks a sense of belonging, we poets seek communion.
Unlike Trump who abhors shame, we poets examine it fully.
Unlike Trump who lacks the will to doubt, we poets are askers of questions.
Unlike Trump who despises the absurd, we poets invite its uncertainties as a means to measure life and life’s possibilities. We poets do not believe the world belongs to us. Our existence is a miracle, and yet we know our world is limited.
Unlike Trump who believes he can do as he pleases unconditionally, we poets understand that existence comes to an end. As do administrations.
At this hour of Donald Trump’s inauguration I believe it’ll be the quiet poems that point us to the miracle of human existence in the face of hatred.
It is hard to imagine the next years without poetry of the human spirit, without poetry as the fragile gift of care, and without poetry that extols connection, communion, community in the face of collective hate against the mysteries of life.