Rhymes with Trump: Poetry in the Age of Divisiveness

“Resist much, obey little.”

— Walt Whitman, from “Leaves of Grass”

“Oh, beautiful America, I am afraid I am crying / I don’t know what we can do to help you.”

— Maria Mazziotti Gillan, from “The Day After the Election”

In just the last few months 11 people were shot in a synagogue in Pittsburgh by an anti-Semite; a right-wing serial bomber was arrested for sending pipe bombs to vocal critics of Donald Trump and his policies (including to two former presidents); a white man in Kentucky was arrested and charged with the murder of two black people in a grocery store after he failed to infiltrate a church down the street in hopes of gunning down church-goers; Matthew Shepard, murdered for being gay in 1998, was laid to rest at the National Cathedral; and Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault, was harassed and the victim of multiple death threats.

According to a new study, put out by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University San Bernardino, hate crimes for the 10 largest cities rose for four straight years to the highest level in a decade. It found that anti-Black, anti-Semitic, anti-gay, and anti-Latino were the most common types of hate crimes.

So what should one do to combat this intense and overwhelming wave of hatred? Some are turning to poetry.

Poetry reading, according to a recent survey put out by the National Endowment for the Arts, has surged a remarkable 76 percent since 2012 and the share of 18-24 year olds who read poetry has more than doubled in that same time frame. Additionally, 11.7 percent of adults said they read poetry last year. Women readers increased by 14.5 percent, Hispanic readers by 9.7 percent, Asian Americans up 7.8 percent, and African American readers (the ethnic group most likely to read poetry in the US) are up 8.4 percent.

In Amiri Baraka’s “Black Art” (1966) he states: “We want a black poem. And a / Black World. / Let the world be a Black Poem / And Let All Black People Speak This Poem / Silently / or LOUD.”

Today’s poets, including writers Terrance Hayes, Jericho Brown, Kevin Young, Danez Smith, Morgan Parker, and Tracy K. Smith (who is currently serving as the 52nd Poet Laureate of the United States) have brought the contemporary black experience to the fore, by way of sonnets and aubades, canzones and quatrains.

In the anthology, Of Poetry and Protest: From Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin, is a poem by Harryette Mullen entitled, “We Are Not Responsible.” It concludes with, “Step aside, please, while our office inspects your bad attitude / You have no rights we are bound to respect / Please remain calm, or we can’t be held responsible / for what happens to you.”

This refrain is similarly spoken in Claudia Rankine’s National Book Critics Circle Award-winning volume of verse, Citizen: An American Lyric. “Because white men can’t / police their imagination / black men are dying,” she writes. In the first print edition of the book, published in October 2014, one page is listed “November 23, 2012. In Memory of Jordan Russell Davis.” Which was the day he died at a gas station for playing his music too loud. Subsequent editions of her book has names added to that list — names of police brutality victims like Mike Brown, John Crawford, Eric Garner, and others.

“Until then, we touched our bodies like wounds,“ writes Natalie Diaz, a MacArthur “Genius” Grant winner and a Mojave, enrolled as a member of the Gila River Tribe. From her poem “Post-Colonial Love Song” she shares: “The belled bruises fingers ring / against the skin are another way to bloom / The war never ended and somehow begins again.”

There isn’t an underrepresented or misrepresented group post-Trump that isn’t finding their voices through verse. Poetry is easier to find than ever, with social media exposing readers to a wide diversity of poets.

Rupi Kaur, an Indian born Canadian poet, is a worldwide sensation due, in part, to her presence on social media. Her debut book, Milk and Honey, sold over 2.5 million copies worldwide and spent more than a year on the New York Times Best Seller list.

“There isn’t a man alive who could undo me / No, really.” writes Rachel McKibbens in her poem, “Una Oracion” anthologized in Courage: Daring Poems for Gutsy Girls. In the same anthology, in a poem called “South America Addresses Her Latest Conquistador”, April Ranger states: “I am in earnest now / Dude / Explain the word power to me / Tell me why you feel so small.”

Poets are taking to the Internet like never before, addressing their concerns, sharing their thoughts, offering up their art.

Some poets, like Nikkita Oliver, are even entering politics. Oliver had a strong showing in Seattle’s last mayoral race and is a member of the Seattle Peoples Party, a community-centered grassroots political party led by, and accountable to, the people most requiring access and equity.

This is not new, politics and poetry interwoven, but it has surged post-Trump. Horace (65 BC–8 BC) wrote political poems. 17th century poet John Dryden wrote political poems. The contemporary Irish poet, Eavan Boland, argues that the act of a woman writing poetry in Ireland today is a political act in itself since women writers have been so undervalued there.

John F. Kennedy once said, “If more politicians knew poetry, and more poets knew politics, I am convinced the world would be a better place to live.” Robert Frost read a poem at Kennedy’s inauguration. Maya Angelou read at Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration. Richard Blanco read at Barack Obama’s 2013 inauguration (the youngest, first Latino immigrant and openly gay writer to hold that honor). Donald Trump did not have a poet at his inauguration.

Recently, in European Magazine, Dickon Stone stated, “We don’t have to debate whether art should be political — it always is.” No matter the poet — whether it be Ocean Vuong, Eileen Myles, Eve Ewing, Elizabeth Acevedo, or anyone putting pencil to paper — they are making a political stand.

“America I was driving when I heard you / Had died I swerved into a ditch and wept / In the dream I dreamed unconscious in the ditch / America.” These are the first lines of National Book Award finalist Shane McCrae’s poem, “Everything I Know About Blackness I Learned from Donald Trump.”

Walt Whitman knew about America, too. “I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear.” O! how Whitman would have taken to Twitter, hearing everyone’s song.

Jonathan Shipley is a Seattle-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Fine Books & Collections Magazine, Gather Journal, and other publications.

Illustration by: Juliet Romano.

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