Fever Pitch

On the function of authority in poetry and politics. 

In a speech at Harvard University in 1956, John F. Kennedy, then a senator, said, “If more politicians knew poetry, and more poets knew politics, I am convinced the world would be a little better place in which to live.” 

The lovely, innocuous statement employs some classic Kennedy chiasmus. It also invites us to consider what exactly poetry and politics have to offer each other. Practically all politicians, even those who style themselves as plainspoken and folksy, have to walk a tricky line between being articulate and appearing authentic. The public expects both, but the two are often perceived as contradictory. (This distinction also squares with Mario Cuomo’s famous dictum, “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.”) Quoting poetry allows politicians to be eloquent without seeming pretentious because the beautiful words are not theirs; they are the poets’.

It might surprise some, but Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has made use of poetry on the campaign trail. At rallies in Florida and Illinois, he has delivered readings of the poem/lyric “The Snake,” by the poet, singer, playwright, and civil rights activist Oscar Brown Jr. Best known from soul singer Al Wilson’s 1968 recording, “The Snake” tells the story of a generous old woman who takes in a sick snake out of the goodness of her heart only to have the animal turn around and bite her. Based on one of Aesop’s fables, this narrative—like most fables—has a great deal of potential resonance with a variety of scenarios. Predictably, given his long and vocal campaign history of bigotry and xenophobia, Trump frames the story as a warning: the United States should not take in immigrants or refugees lest its citizens end up snakebitten. He recited the lyrics, the Chicago Tribune reported in March, “just after the part of his campaign speech where he alluded to the threat of Islam and his thoughts on terrorism. The song, he said, prepping his audience, ‘represents terrorism.’” 

Brown died in 2005, but Trump’s performance of the poem has been a source of dismay to Brown’s family. They have asked the candidate to stop. “We don't want him using these lyrics,” Brown’s daughter Maggie Brown, also a distinguished singer, told the Chicago Tribune. “If Dad were alive, he would've ripped [Trump] with a great poem in rebuttal. Not only a poem and a song, but an essay and everything else.” Others have suggested that Trump’s lawyers, meanwhile, could claim these readings fall under fair use.

The enlistment of an artist’s work by politicians whose views run counter to the artist’s is nothing new and extends well beyond the realm of literature. Musicians frequently ask candidates to cease playing their music at political rallies. In Ronald Reagan’s 1984 reelection campaign, his attempted use of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” offers perhaps the most famous example. (The singer said no and began speaking out against the president.) The song’s upbeat tempo and chorus sound almost jingoistic, but the lyrics present a scathing takedown of the military industrial complex, America’s treatment of veterans, and the lack of opportunities in the narrator’s hometown. 

At other times, musicians object to the political application of their music not because a candidate’s views are at odds with their own but because they are simply not comfortable with the loss of control over their creation. In 2008, Barack Obama’s presidential campaign used the Sam & Dave hit “Hold On! I’m Comin’” to fire up supporters. Sam Moore wrote Obama a letter that was complimentary to his presidential hopes but requested that he please stop using the song.

When the person whose work is being borrowed is a long-dead poet, however, who has the standing to object? Actor Scott Baio recently adapted a line from Langston Hughes’s poem “Let America be America Again” to conclude his speech at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Baio evinced no awareness of the phrase’s origin, but as Rebecca Traister observed in New York Magazine

Ironically, Baio and Hughes were probably meditating on a similar version of America, one in which white male power was assumed, in which Baio could assure himself that the promise of freedom and opportunity was on offer to all, but in which many other Americans, including Hughes, understood America was not America to them.

Similarly, during a brief period in 2011, the staff of Republican Senator Rick Santorum, then a presidential candidate, adopted as his campaign slogan “Fighting to Make America America Again.” Santorum, who has stated on the record that homosexuality is a sin equivalent to incest, backpedaled once he learned that this line was written by an African American poet who was most likely gay. 

Trump’s use of “The Snake” might be odious, but his interpretation of the lyric and the underlying fable are sound—the flexibility and capaciousness of Brown’s words and lines mean that they support a huge variety of interpretations. Trump doesn’t so much misinterpret “The Snake” as insist on a reading of it that pins it to specific circumstances, which undermines its value as a poem. Poems are often built to mean many things at once. When a poem is used expediently in political speech, it can foreclose other interpretations. When Trump tells us that Brown’s poem “represents terrorism,” he’s shutting the poem down, reducing it to purely cautionary, single-use rhetoric.

Authority in literature doesn’t typically operate the way it works elsewhere. The authority that readers give writers is contingent; readers can always abandon a book or poem and find something else to read, or they can quit reading altogether. 

The story in politics is different. As much as we are told that individual votes matter, ultimately, if Trump wins the presidency, the desire of those who voted for another candidate to grant or not grant authority to him is immaterial. In democracy, authority is granted on a majority-rules basis. It doesn’t matter if, as an individual voter, I reject a senator who accepts money from the NRA and denies equal rights to LGBTQ people, and it doesn't matter if I reject his beliefs—he is still a member of the Senate that decides the laws that rule my life. I cannot stop reading the nightmare story of the current Congress or of the frustration and anger that I and so many people feel in the wake of the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.

Because the function of authority in literature cuts both ways, Oscar Brown Jr. and Langston Hughes can’t prevent politicians such as Trump and Santorum and their followers from reading their works in a way that fits their ideology, even if that ideology is anathema to their beliefs as authors. Writers or artists don’t decide whom they give authority to either—once a poem or book is written, people can interpret it however they like. 

This exemplifies the awesome and awful double-edged sword of authority in art, particularly political art: it has to admit multiple interpretations. No one—including the author—possesses the unimpeachable authority to insist on a particular definition of a poem or piece. 

Not all politicians want to straitjacket literature. Former Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley evinced a well-documented love for Irish poetry on the campaign trail and kept a copy of John O’Donohue’s “A Blessing for Leaders” under the glass on his desk at the governor’s office in Annapolis. He seemed to recognize poetry as an effective means of inspiring and energizing not only his audience but also himself. Or as O’Donohue’s poem says, “When the way is flat and dull in times of grey endurance, / May your imagination continue to evoke horizons.” 

Sometimes, a politician can pull a work free of its original context and intent in a way that expands its beauty and reach in keeping with O’Donohue’s idea about imagination. After the Challenger space shuttle disaster in 1986, President Reagan addressed the nation. His speechwriter Peggy Noonan borrowed lines from the poem “High Flight,” written by John Gillespie Magee, an American airman who died at the age of 19 while training during World War II. 

“We will never forget them,” Reagan said, “nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’” Here, Reagan arguably situates Magee’s words in a nobler and more enduring context than they ever would have enjoyed otherwise. 

Politicians have this freedom to inspiringly or expediently apply the words of poets and musicians to amplify their ideological messages because rhetoric, at least per Aristotle’s classically defined three pillars of persuasion, operates differently there. 

Logos—a statement’s content or argumentation—in art behaves more malleably than the logos of a speech or an actual argument. A song, painting, film, or poem’s logos is often elastic to such an extent that it can be co-opted; its ethos—the character and credibility of the speaker—is erased or altered so dramatically as to be unrecognizable. Subsequently, this can give (or attempt to give) the work of art a whole new pathos—or emotional influence—than the creator intended. This plasticity can be a beautiful or a maddening thing. 

For an example of the beautiful, consider Maggie Smith’s poem “Good Bones.” It was first published in Waxwing on June 15, 2016, just three days after the horrific mass shooting in Orlando. The poem, which went viral, begins: 

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.

In the face of the Orlando shooting, one of numerous recent events that seemed to testify to the terribleness of the world, many readers took Smith’s conclusion that, “This place could be beautiful, / right? You could make this place beautiful” to be a statement of hope in a time of despair. When Smith wrote the poem, she did not intend it to be comforting in the aftermath of this particular event—she didn’t know about it. But the piece certainly can be read to provide that solace. And as the poem states a few lines before the conclusion, “Any decent realtor, / walking you through a real shithole, chirps on / about good bones.” If a poem or another work of art’s bones are good enough, then it really can be beautiful, even if that means that sometimes it can be put, by others, to an ugly use.

Originally Published: July 26th, 2016

Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, and a founding member of Poems While You Wait, a team of poets and their typewriters who compose commissioned poetry on demand. She teaches English and creative writing at DePaul University and is...

  1. August 2, 2016
     joseph w

    A work of art goes out in the world and the world does with it what it wants.We are all enriched and changed in different ways and this wonderful piece has opened my eyes to the fact that we are to territorial as to our works.

  2. August 9, 2016
     Slow Reader

    I loved this eloquent essay and plan to use it in my teaching!
    What a compelling exploration of the intersections of poetry and politics!
    How much should we allow our personal beliefs to affect or restrict our appreciation of poetry?
    Ezra Pound was a virulent anti-Semite, but many of his works are inventive and accomplished works of poetry ...
    What if a politician uses a poet's words to promote a despicable message, or to completely pervert/corrupt the poet's original meaning or "message"?
    Wasn't Eliot also an anti-Semite? Should that stop us from returning again and again to the prophetic power of "Four Quartets"?