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Poetry primer for the polls
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.
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.
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.