November 15, 2012

When poetry and politics converge, Part III


A young Barack Obama: poetical politics

In an earlier post, we reported on a panel at the Dodge Poetry Festival featuring Amiri Baraka. We talked about his philosophy on the relationship between poetry and politics, but forgot to mention some rather powerful moments in the panel.

One was his recitation of a poem called “Wise, Why’s, Y’z” with the chilling refrain:

“At the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean there’s a railroad made of human bones./ Black ivory/ Black ivory.”

He noted how we have to contextualize the election of Barack Obama within the civil rights activists preceding him, such as Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks—the latter of which, he was careful to note, wasn’t “just tired,” but was participating in an act of open defiance.

Obama dabbled in poetry a bit himself, it turns out, and his lyrical sensibilities have something to do with why he was reelected, and a bit about his power in general.

The New Yorker featured two of his poems in 2007 and though it’s clear, by Harold Bloom’s standards, that they probably couldn’t have gotten published anywhere but Feast (Occidental Colleges’ literary magazine), we do get a sense of an early capacity for free verse.

Here is the shorter and stranger of the two:


Under water grottos, caverns
Filled with apes
That eat figs.
Stepping on the figs
That the apes
Eat, they crunch.
The apes howl, bare
Their fangs, dance,
Tumble in the
Rushing water,
Musty, wet pelts
Glistening in the blue.

So, we ask, could this be why Mitt Romney lost? Poetry can help us empathize with others. Did Romney’s failure to feel for 47% of the country, and his machine-like countenance, contribute to his being absolutely crushed in the election?

As far as we can tell Romney doesn’t read poetry, but Chris Jones at the Chicago Tribune thinks he might enjoy an anthology of conservative poetry by the formalist William Baer because it has “some of that Morning in America-style rhetoric of Romney.”

The New Republic claimed something opposite — that because Romney has “too much of a poet’s soul” he was destine to lose.

No one would call George Bush a poet, but he did have a bit of cowboy lyricism in his ramblings. He claimed to read more than just some old L. Ron Hubbard tomes, and said that he got into a bored-so-I’m-going-to-read war with Karl Rove.

It may be surprising for you to hear that W. could read at all let alone read Albert Camus’ The Stranger, a book he reportedly read in his look-I-can-read-I-swear contest with Rove. Romney could’ve learned from Camus protagonist’s, Meaursault’s, failings as well, but perhaps only if the book had a title closer to How to Appear To Others That You Are a Psychopath and Cannot Feel Things.

It’s best to shake off the post-election buzz and remain antagonistic when Obama starts to slip into his moderate and reactionary policies (Obama was bombing Yemen hours after he was reelected after-all) and remember that, in his own studies, he preferred T.S. Eliot’s conservatism to what he called the “bourgeois liberalism” of other poets. And, as much as poetry is about truth, it is also about lying really well. We can do a service to ourselves by noting when we are moved by Obama’s knack for the poetical, if only to protect ourselves against it.


Will Vincent is an intern at Melville House.