David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: 21 Poems That Shaped America (Pt. 12): “Shine, Perishing Republic”

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We will now have to suffer through hundreds and hundreds more days of the turgid presidency of Donald Trump. One can already hear the saccharine tones of “normalizers” saying to give Mr. Trump yet another chance even though he’s lately called for abolishing the Senate filibuster and shutting down the federal government.

Last month in the Times, Charles R. Kesler, a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute, concluded in an editorial that “Donald Trump’s populism may be protean, but look for it to move both conservatism and the Republican Party closer to their former selves.”

What, you ask, is that former self? Kesler says it’s a Republicanism that stands “for protective tariffs, immigration tied to assimilation (or what Theodore Roosevelt called Americanization), judges prepared to strike down state and sometimes federal laws encroaching on constitutional limitations, tax cuts, internal improvements (infrastructure spending, in today’s parlance) and a firm but restrained foreign policy tailored to the defense of the national interest.”

If that were the only problem. Instead, each morning it seems we wake to something far removed from this glorified throwback Republicanism. Mr. Trump’s chief-of-staff, Reince Priebus, for instance, confirmed last month that the White House is looking at what steps might be necessary to change the First Amendment. When I first heard this, I was skeptical. Here is the exchange with the ABC News reporter Jonathan Karl. You can decide for yourself—

KARL: I want to ask you about two things the President has said on related issues. First of all, there was what he said about opening up the libel laws. Tweeting “the failing New York Times has disgraced the media world. Gotten me wrong for two solid years. Change the libel laws?” That would require, as I understand it, a constitutional amendment. Is he really going to pursue that? Is that something he wants to pursue?

PRIEBUS: I think it’s something that we’ve looked at. How that gets executed or whether that goes anywhere is a different story. But when you have articles out there that have no basis or fact and we’re sitting here on 24/7 cable companies writing stories about constant contacts with Russia and all these other matters—

KARL: So you think the President should be able to sue the New York Times for stories he doesn’t like?

PRIEBUS: Here’s what I think. I think that newspapers and news agencies need to be more responsible with how they report the news. I am so tired.

KARL: I don’t think anybody would disagree with that. It’s about whether or not the President should have a right to sue them.

PRIEBUS: And I already answered the question. I said this is something that is being looked at. But it’s something that as far as how it gets executed, where we go with it, that’s another issue.

I repeat, put me down as a skeptic. But in past cultural and political upheavals, there have always been those to argue that we need to become nationalistic. It’s a form of take-backism. Take back the Constitution. Take back the flag. Take back law and order. Take back America.

Underlying all those take-backs are the underlying take-aways. Take away the right to free speech. Take away the right to peaceably assemble. Take away respect for diverse religious experiences. Take away the right of the press to criticize and question leaders. Take away the rights of the citizens to petition the Government.

We have seen this before, and we know one poem that shapes an America in resistance, Robinson Jeffers’s “Shine, Perishing Republic”—

While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity,
heavily thickening to empire,
And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops
and sighs out, and the mass hardens,

I sadly smiling remember that the flower fades to make fruit,
the fruit rots to make earth.
Out of the mother; and through the spring exultances,
ripeness and decadence; and home to the mother.

You making haste haste on decay: not blameworthy; life is good,
be it stubbornly long or suddenly
A mortal splendor: meteors are not needed less than mountains:
shine, perishing republic.

But for my children, I would have them keep their distance from
the thickening center; corruption
Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie at the monster’s
feet there are left the mountains.

And boys, be in nothing so moderate as in love of man, a clever
servant, insufferable master.
There is the trap that catches noblest spirits, that caught—they say—
God, when he walked on earth.

Vive le resistance déjà vu, you say? Are we only a nation that forgets, a United States of Obliviousness? Gore Vidal calls us the United States of Amnesia—“We learn nothing because we remember nothing,” he says.

The tragedy of the United States today, coupled with the narrowness, opportunism, and cynicism of the Republican reign—under a president who proves himself authoritarian and corrupt—lies not only in the injustices being done in the name of hashtag freedom. Corruption, Jeffers reminds you, never “has been compulsory.” Instead, it’s a long, historic series of events in favor of private enterprise and private wealth, in favor of property ownership and the elemental white supremacy beneath it, that has erected a blockade against the utopian ideals of American life, especially economic equality and social justice.

Jeffers’s poem shapes an American form of moral courage that is required to resist this monster and defend, say, civil liberties, the right of dissent, equality before the law. Too, courage is a struggle. One that historically has been mounted first by abolitionists, and then by feminists, labor and civil rights and environmental movements, and others. When millions attend marches, including the single biggest day of political action the US has seen in generations during the women’s marches in January, including rushing to airports to protest the president’s Muslim ban, including demonstrations to defend science, including questioning elected officials and public hearings, the republic does not perish. The “protests” have yet to sigh out.

Now comes the fight against officials weakening regulations against polluters, weakening the pillars of public education, weakening the rights of citizens to vote, to obtain health care, clean water. Now comes the time to remember to stay committed. To alter the political landscape requires being “nothing so moderate as in love” with unity and resistance.

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This is part twelve of a twenty-one part series. Here are links to parts 12345678910, and 11. These pieces will appear every two weeks. We value your feedback and your suggestions for other pieces to be included in this list of poems which shaped, and continue to shape, America.


David Biespiel is the author of five collections of poetry, most recently Charming Gardeners and The Book of Men and Women, which was named one of the Best Books of the Year by the Poetry Foundation and received the Stafford/Hall Award for Poetry. His book of essays A Long High Whistle: Selected Columns on Poetry received the Frances Fuller Victor Award. More from this author →