When the blond girl shouted “Hey!” and ran over to stop my bicycle, a voltage of hope charged through my 12-year-old body. No blond girl had ever stopped me in all the years I’d ridden my bike down the lane between the park district playground and rows of suburban townhouses. No blond girl had ever stopped me anywhere. I thought she might want to know my name. Maybe we’d walk across the way to sit on the park swings. It was 1990. I’d never kissed a girl. This might be love. As I settled to a stop, she landed her hands on mine, squeezed, looked me straight in the face, and with a grave seriousness asked, “Are you a Hindu or a Gandhi?” Her mouth broke into a sneer before she released me and ran back to a gallery of cackling friends, their laughter chasing me down the lane past the fractured expanse of the tennis courts to the quiet of the comics shop a mile or so away.
This wasn’t the worst thing anyone had ever done to me. Even by 12, I’d taken plenty a slur, but this encounter with the girl was a total non sequitur, gratuitous and nonsensical. Gandhi is a name, not an epithet. My family isn’t Hindu, and even if we were, I’m not sure how being described as such is an insult. Beyond the merits of her mockery was the exertion it required, that she went so out of her way to stop me. I should probably dismiss this as an artifact of adolescence, but that would ignore the sophistication in it. Having never spoken to me, she deduced my family’s national origin, elaborated upon her deduction by identifying the foremost religious majority of that nation, and further recognized one of its preeminent founding fathers, all from little more than the sight of my face. Impressive for a kid, especially one who might otherwise be dismissed as ignorant. But she wasn’t ignorant.
Her question was born of the rapid interplay between impression and knowledge. She made an inference, a cognitive trick that is as much a portion of intelligence as anything else. Yet she deployed that gift of the mind to mock me, choosing to ignore any deeper complexity and the possibility that I might be someone other than I appeared to be. This is how mockery works. It erases sophistication in its target to achieve an upper hand. That erasure is categorically different from being ignorant. Ignorance can be forgiven. It’s the willfulness of such an act that makes it deplorable.
To a poet, Donald Trump’s candidacy for president might be the most bizarre and compelling artifact in US political history. Trump’s is this country’s first fully linguistic campaign. Concise, brutal, and effective at confounding his rivals, his verbiage is an object lesson in the power of form over content. Commentators have compared Trump to industrial disruptors such as Uber to explain his unexpected success, but that comparison doesn’t offer a complete report on how he continues to defy expectations. Trump is disruptive for sure, but unlike a corporate upstart, he isn’t selling much to voters beyond his rhetoric. He seems less an industrial disruptor than he does a linguistic transgressor. He isn’t Uber. He’s Ezra Pound.
Trump’s rhetoric is working, in part, because it’s so unlike that of the president he’s gunning to replace. Plenty of observers noted the polish of candidate Barack Obama’s speeches during his runs for office in 2008 and 2012, but the president’s oratory was then, and remains now, mostly conventional. For all his flourishes—as evidenced by his regular use of anaphora, highly descriptive language, and rhythmic cadences—Obama adopts a form he inherited from precursory American orators, including Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. That form generally defines a given set of problems, reinforces that account with an imagistic recounting of real-world examples, then offers up a lyrically rendered rationale for answering them.
A poet might notice how similar that description is to one of lyric poetry. Much like a lyrical political speech, a lyric poem is most effective when the speaker articulates an idea a sympathetic audience already wants to believe is true. But where the mind of one listener discovers an unmistakable experience of epiphany, another finds froofy self-indulgence. Consider how confidently John Keats delivers the tautological insight that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” But try offering it to a victim of the slave trade that burgeoned during Keats’s Romantic era. Emily Dickinson describes “Hope” as “the thing with feathers- / that perches in the soul- / and sings the tune without the words- / And never stops - at all,” but tell that to the clinically depressed. These lines are pithy, musical, and memorable, but they’re also rife with illogic. To someone who shares the subject position of their speakers, the lines might appear rich with verisimilitude. To anyone outside that position, though, they might appear quaint and unconvincing. The problem is that the authority of the lyric is contingent upon the audience’s perception of credibility in the speaker. If an audience rejects that credibility at the outset for any reason, the power of the rhetoric evaporates.
To his detractors, who already question President Obama’s legitimate claim to office, who despise the speaker and the content of his speeches, his form becomes a wash of “hopey, changey stuff.” Enter Trump. He arrives at the end of a lyrical presidency with the fury of a transgressive anti-formalist who has made speechifying seemingly new. That newness is less a descriptor of the content of Trump’s oratory and more a measure of his unorthodox form. While opponents such as Hillary Clinton and recent primary dropout Ted Cruz carry on with versions of the formulaic, lyric stump speech, Trump—and to a lesser extent Bernie Sanders—has answered with an anti-artistry that totally rejects the form. His style is all bully pulpit, braggadocio, and rambling observation. Nothing he says is remotely poetic on the grounds of musicality or craft, but this might be what’s so compelling to his supporters. If Trump appears appealing to some and abhorrent to others, it might be because he greatly violates what we’ve come to expect from more “conventional” politicians.
His rhetorical style as much as anything grants him a claim to being an outsider. On the stump, Trump’s language is a blunt instrument. He has the guts, we’re told, to say what nobody else is willing to say, which is another way of saying that he makes explicit what others leave implicit. In the company of his opponents, he eschews substantive counterargument in favor of mockery. Trump asserts superiority by minimizing complexity, slinging reductive characterizations such as Lyin’ Ted and Schlonged Hillary, using common diction to the point of vulgarity. At the end of eight years of Obama’s meditative lyricism, Trump arrives like a berserk avant-garde. He must seem to his audience as much a revelation as Obama felt to me after eight years of listening to George W. Bush.
Still, where Trump’s form is, for some, compelling and new, when it comes to issues of race, gender, bigotry, and intolerance, his content is all too familiar. He is a demagogue, slinging the same reductive mockery at common person and political opponent alike, targeting millions of Mexican immigrants, more than a billion Muslims, and every black American maligned by white supremacist falsehoods that Trump uncritically retweets and repeats. In a word, he makes inferences about people. He chooses to willfully ignore the reality that those multitudes are complex, manifold, and individual. In this, he isn’t so different from the vicious kid stopping my bicycle, only he wants nuclear codes.
I didn't set out that afternoon in 1990 thinking how brown I am, how anyone might assault me with that fact. My encounter with the blond girl felt like getting horse-collared. The effect of this kind of diminishment is profound, the humiliation that follows automatic. It isn’t rooted in shame. I don't remember regretting myself or wanting to disavow my family and the genetics that made me. I liked who I was, but I felt futile, my embarrassment that of powerlessness. I spent days—years, even—thinking about what I should’ve said, with what ferocity of wit and logic I might’ve responded. But I didn’t respond. My weak ass ran. What might initially be blamed on someone else’s cruelty became internalized, the shame self-inflicted.
I told myself I would do better next time. Next time, I’d flank and maneuver. But next time, early one college evening in 1997, I found myself walking down Michigan Avenue when a pair of red-faced, middle-aged, white men in a Jeep Grand Cherokee slowed to ask if I was a “camel fucker.” The passenger grabbed at my arm, and I pulled it away, a frightened child again. Another next time, another white guy stopped his pickup truck to block my path through an Ann Arbor crosswalk. It was a few weeks after 9/11, and he was sinister when he stared me down, so I knew I was something other than an MFA student, and I felt his loathing long after he sped away. I shaved my holdover of a grunge-era beard the next morning. Another next time, a few years later, a different white guy hollered “sand nigger” at me from a car passing so fast that I didn’t have time to react. He gave not one shit for my doctorate, for my first book of poems or the next one. I took to wearing headphones everywhere I went. I avoided eye contact with anyone passing. I didn’t realize how invisible I attempted to become as a result of these and other incidents I won’t bother to recount.
Still, the TSA sees me. The neighborhood watch sees me. The police see me. Their way of seeing is deemed necessary, not racist but defensible under the more procedural-sounding label racial profiling. They’re making allegedly justifiable inferences, but their inferences don’t feel very different from others I remember, every one of them founded on incorrect assumptions and willful decisions to ignore certain facts about my identity. Only I’m no longer the butt of an adolescent joke. Now such inferences—made by law enforcement and Republican presidential candidates alike—might mistake me for a threat, my selfhood erased by the semiautomatic suspicion that I am something other than an “ordinary” citizen. This kind of conflation can get a body detained or arrested, can get a body killed. In such context, I feel obliged to demonstrate my normalcy, my loyalty, my docility even, which is a strange reaction from a person on the receiving end of the unprovoked aggressions of others. I become the victim apologetic.
This isn’t fair, but it turns out the world out there on the other side of the Cartesian divide isn’t as objective as all those philosophy classes in college suggested. It values and devalues me, which alters the way I behave and, in turn, the way I see myself. This is how race comes to affect an entire ontology, how it becomes metaphysical. I possess a version of who I am that feels internally consistent and authentic, but that identity is rejected by others for little more than the bone structure of my face, for nothing other than a trick of light refracting through melanin in my epidermal layer. For anyone affected by this kind of prejudice, it isn’t the individual act that matters. It’s the lesson offered by all such acts taken together, by the fact that such experiences are so common and pervasive for people of color in this country. You start out on your bicycle an American kid until some yokel hollers for you to go back to your country; until security follows you through the store, the airlines remove you from your flight, the politician seeks to remove you from your home; until the patriot punches you in the face or the police strangle or shoot you. It seems the nation itself wants to expunge you.
If you happen to be a poet, the experience of racism is the kind of thing you probably ought to write about. We’re told, after all, to write what we know. But, the first time I write a poem about one of my experiences of racist behavior, a white poet and friend laments that the piece merely outs that behavior, only affirms something he, I, and many readers of poetry already know is wrong. Ezra Pound declared long ago that the artist’s central task is to “make it new,” a prescription that has been paramount for poets for the several generations since, and my friend’s concern is that though my poem might be well written, even publishable, it hasn’t made racism new. As such, it doesn’t notably contribute to the advancement of the art. I can see some of his point. Making it new has been paramount to my work too, but where we run into trouble is in our estimation of what new means exactly, whether it refers to innovations of form, of content, or of both. What my friend, a conscientious and politically liberal white man, somehow missed is that the observation of racial injustice is in itself new, that it hasn’t existed in poetry for very long or been explored to anything approaching completion.
For those unaffected by racism—or by sexism, homophobia, transphobia—it’s possible that every account of victimization blends together. You might be a liberal, sympathetic to the cause of racial parity, but your disconnection from the actual experience of racial disparity might lead you to support the cause without being that interested in specific accounts of it. To such an observer, racism is racism, each particular part of the same continuous subject. You don’t need another poem telling you how awful racism is. You already know. You want something new. This is how race and racism come to be seen as passé subjects for poetry by some, subjects that are already too familiar or too personal or somehow lesser than other, more universal subjects. Further, white readers might find the subjects accusatory and alienating. Their level of alienation or acceptance, then, become the stick by which universality is measured.
When this occurs, and it occurs with surprising frequency, the dismissal is often based on the logic that most lyric poems in our anthologies are devoid of racial or ethnic subject matter. Race is a part of personal identity, and identity as such isn’t the stuff of Poetry. This argument might offer, for example, that John Keats’s odes aren’t especially interested in the life of the man as much as they are in the beauties and truths of his meditations. In spite of ample evidence to the contrary, a speaker such as J. Alfred Prufrock isn’t the aging T.S. Eliot lamenting his diminished sex appeal. Instead, Prufrock is a Modernist observer alienated by his urban wasteland and the urbanity of the women who float through it.
We’re told that these paragons of the poetic canon are laudable, not for their confessions of private experience but for their advancements of form. Their subject is “the world” or the “human” condition, and what makes them remarkable is the way their language constructs and deconstructs that subject differently from any predecessor. This is how they advance the art, and those advancements come to establish the narrative history of Anglo-American poetry: the Early Modern begets the Romantic which begets the Modern which begets the postmodern. The corpus of that progress demonstrates how any fixations on identity and personal experience are more the stuff of pop music than of serious literature.
Though it’s true that neither Keats nor Eliot ever wrote from or about their experiences of racial identity, this is likely because their male whiteness wasn’t ever noted or challenged by anyone around them. Keats’s warm and capable hand can reach unimpeded for abstractions of truth and beauty because he never needs to stop and contemplate the color of that hand. Others do. I might find plenty of pleasure and insight in his poems, in those by Eliot and other white writers too, but I can’t say their accounts are more objective or universal than a Langston Hughes meditation on a brass spittoon. The difference is that Keats’s ontology, the metaphysic that underlies his artistry, isn’t affected by race, as Hughes’s, mine, and that of so many others is. As such, these white masters, though masters they might be, offer perspectives on the human condition that are incomplete. If there is progress here, it isn’t final.
And, yet, there are critics willing to claim that lyricism itself is a finished thing, that a white person’s means of contemplating the self is the universal rendering of such contemplation, that the introduction of race diminishes lyricism in the first place. As Cathy Park Hong has forcefully argued, such thinking is rife with racial bias and blindness, but this is where our confusions about the it in “make it new” have landed us. This, perhaps, illustrates another point. In describing literary history as a kind of progress, there is a related and implicit belief that poetry is somehow advancing. This is akin to misconceptions of Darwinism that take the term evolution to mean a species is bettering itself toward some endpoint. Any biologist will correct that notion by noting that natural selection is adaptive. The species evolves only inasmuch as it can better cope with specific and changing pressures on it. If we believe that poetry is “evolving” in the fallacious way, we wind up committing to a narrative about the art, and if new writing doesn’t fit that existing narrative, if it isn’t “new” relative to long-held beliefs about the old (that canonical poems are “universal” in their scope, for example), we might believe it dismissible.
It would be better to understand that when the context changes, the poetry responds. Sometimes formerly dominant perspectives are selected out. Sometimes vestigial styles are selected back in. Complaining doesn’t help, no matter how knowledgably complainants ground themselves in a history of the art. To do so is akin to asking a parrot to turn itself into a dinosaur or claiming that America can be made great again by walling itself off and returning to the economics and geopolitics of the 1950s. The tectonics have shifted. The asteroid struck. That America is over.
The 21st century is radically different from 19th-century England. It is different even from the only recently ended 20th century, though this might be news to Trump. In this moment in which the whole of the English writing world is more diverse than ever before, a poetry (and politics) of color, of gender, and of sexuality has begun to assert itself. It might be disquieting in its confessionalism, alienating in its subject matter and in its defiance of tradition, but it is successfully adapting and being embraced by editors and readers alike. Not all of it is good, but I can at least suggest that poetry isn’t dead so much as it’s evolving, and this is a very good thing even if it abandons the historical antecedents of the canon.
As with biological evolution, the change in poetry has been slow, incremental, arriving in fits and starts. Yet, there are those who claim that in a changed context, one in which literary poetry itself is in decline, the fact of race gives minority writers undue competitive advantage toward publication in journals and by book presses. The topic of race is dismissed as fashionable, the writers who take it on further dismissed as beneficiaries of tokenism, which is itself dismissed as a consequence of affirmative action and a political correctness that’s undermined meritocracy in publishing and left white writers disenfranchised and dispossessed. From this perspective, a history of racism has given way to a new era of “reverse racism.”
In September 2015, the poetry world erupted over the exploits of Michael Derrick Hudson when Sherman Alexie included Hudson’s poem “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve” in that year’s edition of Best American Poetry. A fine achievement for Hudson—except he had originally published the poem under the pen name Yi-Fen Chou. Confronted by the fact that he’d been duped by Hudson, Alexie offered an account of his conflicting turns of thought in deciding to include the poem in the anthology, copping to what he dubs “racial nepotism.” The ensuing debate about diversity and political correctness garnered coverage in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and a host of other major media outlets.
While the occasion was sensational, it doesn’t prove anything about reverse racism. Alexie’s admiration for the poem is in part based on the idea that Yi-Fen Chou had written about subject matter that Alexie didn’t expect someone named Yi-Fen Chou to write about. He celebrated the fact that an apparently Chinese writer managed to avoid writing about anything discernibly Chinese, as if that avoidance itself was an accomplishment. In doing so, his thinking reinforced the tired idea that there exists a distinction between the poetry of identity and poetry in general. Such thinking not only dismisses the idea that non-white concerns can themselves be universal and Western but also places an outsized burden on writers of color that says we’re better when we don’t write our own experience, when we choose stealth over statement.
On the other hand, Hudson’s adoption of the pseudonym/heteronym/nom de plume Yi-Fen Chou has nothing to do with the experience of any actual Yi-Fen Chou. Hudson might have observed that minority writers have lately met with modestly increased notoriety. Maybe he desired that success for himself, but as a white man, he can use a false racial identity to his advantage where it offers one and use his actual identity when it serves him better. This isn’t dispossession. It’s a choice. The motivation to engage in this kind of deception is entirely self-serving and has far less to do with race than it does with ego.
This is something Trump’s supporters, who seem inclined to cite reverse racism as a reason for their own hardships, miss. Losing out where your forebears always won doesn’t mean that you’re a victim of racial bias. It means the context has changed. Other people get a shot too, but this isn’t easy to accept when the ego is affronted, when the loss feels so immediate and personal. Ego might be at the root of every claim to reverse racism. The so-called victim feels disadvantaged in some competitive arena and assigns that disadvantage to skin color or gender. That might even be correct to a certain extent. Another candidate/applicant/competitor may have been given consideration out of demographic concerns and may well have beaten out the other in the end, but the dismissal of one individual is wholly different from the dismissal of all individuals of similar backgrounds and more different still from the dismissal of a person’s individuality itself. The failings of one white man don’t represent the failings of all white men. Trump is, after all, neither the first nor the last white male candidate for office. Whether he wins or loses in November, there will remain ample opportunity for a different white man to come take his place in the next election and every election to follow.
Something might well be changing in the United States. We do live under the administration of our first black president, of our first Hispanic poet laureate, of a Treasury ready to replace Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill, but the belief that a first person of color in any position, that the first women and minorities appearing in places they have never appeared before, is somehow evidence of a systemic conspiracy against whiteness is to mistake the outlier for the system. Unfortunately, as Trump continues to prove, it isn’t terribly difficult to convince large numbers of people that this is exactly what’s happening. If a population so liberal and high-minded as America’s academic poets find themselves caught up in such thinking—you know who you are—it isn’t difficult to imagine what might be happening out there among the wider, conservative electorate.
In the broadest strokes, Trump’s worldview—which advocates the deportation of millions, bellicosity in every conflict, a top-down overhaul of the tax code, and a total repeal of the Affordable Care Act—isn’t so different from that of many of his primary opponents. Where it is different—in his defense of Planned Parenthood, rejection of free trade agreements, or objection to the second Iraq War—he actually runs counter to Republican orthodoxy. If his appeal were purely political, any one of the more experienced and party-approved Republicans should have overtaken him in the polls. None, of course, did, and now that he has improbably assumed the mantle of Republican standard bearer, it might seem his campaign has discovered antigravity.
Trump’s appeal isn’t magical, though. His strongest support is among white, working-class men, the so-called silent majority that’s long propped up—and in recent years become disillusioned by—the Republican Party. Trump’s demagoguery simply taps into that disillusionment. He employs the tactic of the “dog whistle,” offering racially tinged rhetoric that never fully commits to the slur. He assigns blame, and the population that supports him, facing economic hardship and cultural upheaval, finds in his rhetoric—amply peppered with race baiting and inference—a legitimate cause of and answer to its grievances. At some point, though, the subtext becomes explicit. When Trump openly calls for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” or condones the beating of a protester or fails to disassociate himself from the endorsements of white supremacists, any illusion of subtlety is lost. He’s assigning blame to groups of people based on little more than their appearance and origins, and his proposed solutions aren’t individual or critical. They’re total. He’s endorsing the systemic exclusion of those peoples. It’s at this point that he becomes the dog in place of the whistle.
Trump’s rhetoric, his entire candidacy, is the logical endpoint of the falsehood of “reverse racism.” Rather than acknowledging my or anyone’s experiences of racist exclusion, rather than confronting the real threats people of color in this country face daily, the claim to reverse racism creates a false equivalency between subjugation and inconvenience. It attempts to co-opt the hardships of the racially disadvantaged to justify the complaints of the racially advantaged. But no white gripe can take my memory of the blond girl away from me. No politics of paranoia can eclipse my actual fear walking down the street, my actual fear in the airport, my actual fear driving through entire states and regions of this country, or the fears so many people of color have of the police, of the criminal justice system, of their fellow citizens seeking to make America what it once was. Those fears are founded on experience, not inference, experiences as real as our national legacies of slavery and segregation, of ghettoization, internment, and deportation. No demagogue can erase them. No tokenism can correct them. No history of poetry should minimize or exclude them.
Born in Chicago, poet Jaswinder Bolina earned a BA in philosophy from Loyola University in Chicago, an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan, and a PhD in English with a creative writing concentration from Ohio University. He is the author of the chapbook The Tallest Building in...