Poetry reminds us that we must witness and testify.

For a week or two after the election, I couldn’t bring myself to read the paper. I wasn’t interested in anyone’s analysis of what had happened, why it had happened, who was most at fault. Instead of reading the news, I read poetry. It spoke to me in fragments, shards of anger, grief, and sadness.

Not American poetry, though. I was surprised to find on those grim November days that the American poets I love most—William Carlos Williams, Sylvia Plath, James Wright, even Emily Dickinson—were of no use to me, so I looked abroad. I pulled off the shelf the collected poems of Anna Akhmatova and C.P. Cavafy, Czeslaw Milosz’s anthology A Book of Luminous Things and Carolyn Forché’s anthology Against Forgetting, which gathers poets from all over the world who have lived through political oppression and war. Forché’s anthology, especially, full as it is of the language of resistance in the face of defeat, became essential to me. I carried it everywhere, reciting poems from it to friends, copying poems in emails to my family, posting lines on Twitter.

I needed to talk to other people but not in the same old ways. I wanted words that would connect me authentically to other people, a language that would speak from the very center of my being, that was candid and urgent and capable of bearing witness to this new reality. The poets in Forché’s anthology—César Vallejo, Bei Dao, Yehuda Amichai—gave me that language, the language of mourning, the language of rage.

“I saw the old god of war stand in a bog between chasm and rockface,” says Bertolt Brecht in “The God of War,” a poem that expressed perfectly my disgust at the grotesque figure of Donald Trump and my seething anger at his supporters. “In a hoarse, wolfish voice he declared his love for everything young. Nearby stood a pregnant woman, trembling. And without shame he talked on and presented himself as a great one for order.”

The Polish poet Anna Swir gave shape and voice to my inchoate, unarticulated shock at what had happened, my terror at what might now happen: “Why am I so afraid running in the street that is burning.”

Aleksander Wat, another Pole, morbidly funny but haunted by history, and Osip Mandelstam, the great Russian poet who was exiled for reciting a poem critical of Stalin and died in a forced labor camp, cast the situation in the starkest moral terms. First, Wat:

         Nothing is ever over
         —the helmsman’s voice was hollow—
         and there is no bottom to evil.

Then, from Mandelstam:

         Star-salt is melting in the barrel
         icy water is turning blacker
         death’s growing purer, misfortune saltier
         the earth’s moving nearer to truth and to dread.

Good, evil, truth, dread: those struck me as necessary terms on the morning of the 9th. They still do, as we inaugurate an autocrat who, among other things, has advocated torture and bragged about sexual assault.

It’s now been two months since the election, months of violence, anxiety, absurdity, and confusion. Hate speech and hate crimes proliferate, often accompanied by that magical word, a curse or a battle cry: Trump. Twitter rants issue forth from Trump Tower. Cabinet nominations are floated, most of them ideologically opposed to the missions of the very departments they’re meant to run. Meanwhile, Trump has made no effort to address his myriad conflicts of interest, an evasion that Congress has been happy to oblige. A new, weird reality has begun to take shape.

At some point, I had to start reading the news again, had to be informed, had to get to work, get on the phone to my senators and congressional representatives, paste posters around my town, find allies. For that I had to start talking to people. But how? In days when speaking feels like betrayal because speech is both inadequate and normalizing, and it seems wrong, dangerous even, to talk in the same old ways about what has happened but worse to avoid talking about it, I need a new language. We have to speak. How can we speak?

I don’t yet know the answer to that question, but I do know that poetry can help. In November, poetry spoke to my confusion, my disbelief, my anger, and my grief. Now, in January, as we begin to inhabit this new chapter in our history, poetry becomes for me a voice of resistance. Political resistance. Spiritual resistance.

         Go where those others went to the dark boundary
         for the golden fleece of nothingness your last prize

Those are the first two lines of Zbigniew Herbert’s poem “The Envoy of Mr. Cogito.” Few writers speak from a position of resistance better than the Polish poet Herbert. For him, as for so many poets in Forché’s anthology, poetry was a tool for survival. (Many, such as Wat and Mandelstam, didn’t survive.) Herbert was only 14 when Poland was invaded, first in September 1939 by the Nazis and then, just weeks later, by the Soviet Union. His poems, “Envoy” in particular, bear witness to a broken world in which speaking truth—giving testimony, as he puts it—is a necessary part of its repair.

         you were saved not in order to live
         you have little time you must give testimony
         be courageous when the mind deceives you be courageous
         in the final account only this is important

Resistance, I am learning, as I form one group and join two others and leave message after message with my senators and force myself to attend as fully as possible to every piece of bad news coming from Washington, involves few clear victories. Like poetry, it courts failure and boredom. And like poetry, it’s necessary, now more than ever.

Poetry resists the degradation of language. (Herbert jokingly referred to Stalin as “the Great Linguist.”) It resists hopelessness, alienation, and cynicism, the manna already being offered us from above. It reminds us that we must witness and testify—or, as Brecht puts it, in lines that serve as the epigraph for Forché’s anthology:

         In the dark times, will there also be singing?
         Yes, there will be singing.
         About the dark times.

So read Brecht before dinner. Read Lorca on the way to the capitol to lobby your senator. Read Adonis every morning to recommit yourself to the task at hand, which is nothing less than wrestling democracy from the paws and the jaws of lions. 

Originally Published: January 16th, 2017

Geoffrey Hilsabeck is the author of Riddles, Etc. (The Song Cave, 2017). His poems, essays, and translations have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, LitHub, Seneca Review, and on NPR. He teaches at West Virginia University and lives in Morgantown, West Virginia.