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Poetry primer for the polls

By Milan Gagnon

Palin500.jpg
As the election season enters its last days, the Poetry Foundation asked poets what guidance through verse they might offer to the candidates—and, perhaps more importantly, to the voters. The first responses came from Matthea Harvey, most recently the author of Modern Life, and Charles Bernstein, director of Buffalo’s Electronic Poetry Center.


Harvey
Barack Obama: “The Little Box” by Vasko Popa, because it speaks to the stewardship of self and world.
John McCain: “The Lock-Eater” by Henri Michaux, because it is an illuminating fable.

Joe Biden:
“Present Tense” by Haryette Mullen, because of its wild wordiness and topicality.

Sarah Palin:
“Moose and Calf,” by Jean Valentine, because of its complexity and compassion.

Voters:
“A Warning” by Czesław Miłosz, because it’s an apt admonishment.
Bernstein
Barack Obama:“The Bomb” by Carlos Drummond de Andrade. 
Should Obama win the election, he will be a leader not just of the United States, but also of the world. Sâo Paulo poet Régis Bonvicino writes me that “the black people from Rio’s favelas love Obama, their new hero. They call him ‘O bamba’”—a homophonic translation of Obama that means in slang “tough guy,” “bully,” “hood”—the best, the one. This word came from samba, from Nigeria, Bantu, I think. There is a classic song by Ataulfo Alves called “Na cadência do samba”: “Quero morrer numa batucada de bamba / na cadência bonita do samba“. (“I wanna die in the beat of ‘bamba’ / in the beautiful rhythm of the samba.”) Bonvicino called my attention to Drummond’s 1962 poem, which is worth contemplating by any person for whom “finger on the trigger” is not just a figure of speech.
John McCain
: “The Audacity of Mendacity”.
 I’ve written this for McCain—taking a sort of “poet’s eye for the straight guy” approach. It’s my audition piece for Poet Laureate under President McCain.
Joe Biden: 
“The Revolution Will not Be Televised” by Gil Scott-Heron (see below).
 In reading Scott-Heron, Biden might want to contemplate how barbaric drug laws in the United States have punitively blocked way too many from contributing to our culture and economy. He might also turn to Scott-Heron’s “Who’ll Pay Reparations on My Soul” and “Winter in America” for a deep connection with the anger and soulfulness of American poetry of lamentation.
Sarah Palin: 
“For the SLA” by Women in the Weather Underground Organization.
This poem would provide Palin with a more nuanced perspective on some of the ideas circulating in the fringe American left of the 1960s and ’70s, especially the passionate, if misguided, concern for combating state terrorism. From the poem: “They call it terror / if you are few and have no B-52s / if you are not a head of state / with an army and police / if you have neither napalm / nor tanks nor electronic battlefields / terror is if you are dispossessed / and have only your own two hands.” To contextualize this poem, Palin might want to read my Brooklyn Rail review of Sing a Battle Song, the book in which poem the appears.
Readers, your turn after this musical interlude.

Comments (14)

  • On October 27, 2008 at 4:41 pm Kent Johnson wrote:

    Not that there’s anything wrong with this, as harmless exercise in poignant hubris…
    But I wish someone at the Poetry Foundation had thought of inviting each of the candidates (“third party” candidates, too–this is a democracy, after all) to submit a list of poems he or she has been most inspired by.
    I’ll bet a few of them would have. And the results might have been revealing and entertaining, both.
    Kent

  • On October 27, 2008 at 8:07 pm Kent Johnson wrote:

    Actually, I just had an idea, and I think it’s a good one, might even get some broader attention:
    That the Poetry Foundation ask the new President and his cabinet members, along with all members of the new Senate (asking the House would probably be too much), to share with Americans their favorite poem.
    This would give us a sense of where our political leadership poetically stands, as it were. Longfellow or Hejinian? Etc.
    The results would be published in Poetry.
    Who knows, we might be surprised. After all, one of the outfielders for the Tampa Bay Rays avidly reads Ashbery and Creeley…
    I’m completely serious in proposing this!
    Kent

  • On October 27, 2008 at 11:15 pm john wrote:

    I like Kent’s suggestion.
    I’d be surprised and impressed if anybody picked Longfellow.
    I’d recommend “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus to any American politician. People rarely discuss 19th century American poets other than Whitman and Dickinson, and sometimes Emerson & Thoreau (except ironically), but if any politician were to propose to enact the ideals of “The New Colossus,” she or he would be tarred as a radical.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_New_Colossus

  • On October 28, 2008 at 1:42 am Joe Safdie wrote:

    I know I’m a latecomer to this blog, but . . . has anyone congratulated the current editors of Poetry magazine for, you know, completely reinventing it? I know you’ve gotten a massive infusion of money in the last few years, but really, it’s a major change in American letters that this particular magazine is now . . . not as stodgy as it used to be (and has people like the notorious Kent Johnson regularly frequenting its comments space).

    It gives practitioners like myself hope that poets who often include “current events” in their work might eventually find their way into these once suspect pages. And honestly, have you ever thought, as Kent has revealed in his latest comment (by way of Ron’s blog) that an actual baseball player on a current World Series team would actually READ John Ashbery and Robert Creeley? And to do so for the purpose of calming down in the pressure-packed atmosphere of the playoffs? I’ll tell you. . . first Obama, and now this. It makes you think.

  • On October 28, 2008 at 5:13 am Desmond Swords wrote:

    . now i aint sayin Bernie aint the biggest
    bernie aint the best, chuck just do B yall
    yah? gawd yeah Bernie, coz i know
    i have been to the mountain top of Croaghaun
    county Mayo – on Achill island and gazed
    200 feet below down sheer cliff, second
    highest on the continent i’m on here
    and hurled from Slievmore’s tip and seen
    the promised land of tir na og now Bernie
    Ormskirk, Bohola Achill Macroom Amergin
    and i aint sayin it’s gonna be easy, aint
    sayin it’s gonna be rough, just that in love
    Hope will rise and the wise seer of a bono
    faced honey mouthed god of poetry, Ogma
    in the mob with fintan’s salomon of knowledge
    bradán feasa in the boyhood deeds of Fionn,
    crane bags – ancient hags and the hawk of Achill
    swirls above the sod — and i aint gonna say read
    this mister, aijnt gonna say take that beauty
    queen, king, prince and ploghman, we all gotta
    get along daddio, so maybe, maybe, the one
    American bard who fits the lot
    The Symphoney (An Edited Extraction)
    And Love heard poor-folk cry,
    Humanity sighing and ever sweet faith
    Hooded, death-defying,
    The innocent child’s implicit wisdom,
    But never a trader’s gloss, slavery, knaving
    Or lying.
    Gods’ harmony will then be heard,
    Though long deferred, though long deferred:
    Over modern waste a dove has whirred:
    When Music is Love in search of a word.
    Sidney Lanier – love and peace – gra agus siochain
    i love you Charles Bernstein, in the strictly professional sense
    you too Milan Gagnon, of course you have gags
    pallin round with beauty and brains, the talented and stunningly intelligent
    Sarah, a goddess from the otherworld, s/he is my love
    and her geriatic lover speakin sense, the man with only US the average Joe
    to love, his millions, mean nothing Gagnon, don’t be fooled by
    O’Leary, O’Reilly, O’hare and O’Hara, coz there’s nop one as Irish as da da da da da
    is what i’m gonna say and as James Connolly the Irish Freedom expert executed in 1916, spoke
    101 years back daddio, in 1907 NY city on launching his Songs of Freedom poetry book:
    “No revolutionary movement is complete without its poetical expression. If such a movement has caught hold of the imagination of the masses they will seek a vent in song for the aspirations, the fears and the hopes, the loves and the hatreds engendered by the struggle. Until the movement is marked by the joyous, defiant, singing of revolutionary songs, it lacks one of the most distinctive marks of a popular revolutionary movement, it is the dogma of a few, and not the faith of the multitude.”
    No gags, Milan? go here to the Starry Plough, Berkley Ca and here the bardic Dub speak singing…da da da da da’s great great grandfoather was from county Offaly and this song was written and the chorus goes, O’Leary, O’Reilly, O’Hare and O’Hara, there’s no one as Irish as da da da da da..from the old blarney stone to the green hills opf Tara, there’s no one as irish as da da da da da..
    i love you No gags.
    come. c’mon and sing it freedom

  • On October 28, 2008 at 12:17 pm Bradley Paul wrote:

    For Barack Obama: The same poem I’d suggest to any new leader (assuming the polls are right): Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94, “They that have power to hurt, and will do none…” Hopefully, in moving others, he is himself as stone, and to temptation slow; hopefully he is not a lily that festers.
    For Joe Biden: Wordworth’s “Elegiac Stanzas.” Perhaps, in the speaker’s intellectual development that comes from the tragic loss of a loved one, he would find a kindred spirit.
    For John McCain: Julio Cortázar’s “Instructions on How to Wind a Watch.” Fear will rust all the rubies.
    For Sarah Palin: Barbara Guest’s “Moscow Mansions.” Because she wouldn’t have to buy the book; she could just see it from her house.
    And to the outgoing W.: Wilfred Owens’ “Apologia Pro Poemate Meo.” Those men are worth his tears; he is not worth their merriment.

  • On October 29, 2008 at 10:23 am Idahoeditor wrote:

    Seattle P-I Opinions Page Editor Mark Trahant is writing daily four-line poetry off the news…in the tradition of a guy named Fitch or Fitchett who wrote news-related poems for the P-I in the 1940s.
    You can get them via Trahant’s tweets.

  • On October 29, 2008 at 12:21 pm Don Share wrote:

    Ah, yes, that would be Carlton Fitchett, whose news-rhymes were collected in a book, Rimes Of a Reporter, published back in the forties.

  • On October 29, 2008 at 1:22 pm john wrote:

    Saw in the supermarket yesterday that Biden’s autobiography’s title is a quote from 20th century American poetry: “Promises to Keep.”

  • On October 29, 2008 at 4:28 pm john wrote:

    Any predictions as to which contemporary poets are going to have lines showing up as titles of Senators’ autobiographies 90 years from now?
    Any proposals for autobio titles from lines of contemporary poetry?

  • On October 31, 2008 at 10:56 am Don Share wrote:

    OK, check out these these interesting suggestions!
    John, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest Thomas Sayers Ellis’s “Skin, Inc.”

  • On November 4, 2008 at 1:43 pm Kent Johnson wrote:

    There’s still time for Poetry MagazIne to poll the new President, Cabinet, and Senate on favorite poets! (see suggestion above).
    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/02/books/review/Meacham-t.html?_r=1&oref=slogin
    Kent

  • On November 4, 2008 at 2:15 pm Don Share wrote:

    Um, but what would we do with and/or conclude from that exciting information, Kent?

  • On November 4, 2008 at 3:14 pm Kent Johnson wrote:

    Don,
    Well, that’s a good, reasonable question.
    But it seems that knowing something about the poetic tastes (dare one say “sophistication”?) of our political leaders might provide some useful information to poets in the winding, never ending process of figuring the ways poetical address may interface with political gesture.
    That’s awkwardly put. But something like that?
    Kent


Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, October 27th, 2008 by Milan Gagnon.