By Mark Bauerlein and Garrick Davis –
Last February, after The New York Times announced a Donald Trump Poetry Contest, columnist Nicholas Kristof reported that 2,000 entries had been submitted. “I sought out pro-Trump poems,” he said, “but poets seem to be disproportionately aghast at his presidency.”
No kidding. They’ve been exercised by a Republican in the White House for a long time.
When in 2003 Laura Bush planned a symposium on Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes, a group of poets led by the founder of Copper Canyon Press created a protest movement focused on her husband’s Iraq policy. The letter the founder sent out to other poets stated that when he read his invitation to the event he was “overcome by a kind of nausea.” Mrs. Bush cancelled the event.
Donald Trump has raised this revulsion to new levels. The New York Review of Books’ Charles Simic wrote an essay in November comparing Trump to Ubu Roi, the murderous, clownish tyrant in Alfred Jarry’s surrealist play from 1896. Mr. Trump’s supporters were just as bad, Mr. Simic noted, being people who “miss the days of public lynchings.”
Elisa Chavez, the “poet in residence” at the Seattle Review of Books, wrote “Revenge” in reply to Trump’s inauguration: “I’ll give birth to an army of mixed-race babies. / With fathers from every continent and genders to outnumber the stars, / my legion of multiracial babies will be intersectional as [expletive] / and your swastikas will not be enough to save you”
These lines hardly make sense. It’s as if each versifier competes to show only that his disgust runs deeper than anybody else’s. To present Mr. Trump and his supporters as vile, stupid, clueless, and oh-so-white is the currency. The Poem-a-Day that started the month of December, by Jose Olivarez, is titled “I Walk into Every Room and Yell Where the Mexicans At?” It notes, “the white woman at the party who may or may not have voted for trump tells me she doesn’t meet many mexicans in this part of new york city.”
Read through the magazines and you find such petulant identity fixations everywhere. A review in The New Yorker of the best poetry of 2017 praises one volume because it makes you “take on physically and imaginatively the interior life of a gender-queer African-American worrying about H.I.V.” Sounds appealing, huh? A similar review in The Washington Post praises one volume for the way it “explores how the English language has been used to circumscribe and denigrate Native Americans.” Another inviting subject.
It might not be so bad if the identity politics expressed in these sallies weren’t so predictable. They want to express authenticity, but only deliver resentment. They claim to come from the heart, but the stale phrases originate in scripted emotions. Being infuriated at Donald Trump takes no skill or talent, but it passes for art. The more howling you hear, the more infantile the language.
Call it the Amiri Baraka-fication of American poetry. Mr. Baraka, for those who don’t know, was the pen-name that black poet Leroi Jones (1934-2014) adopted after he had embraced radical Marxist politics. He was a promising voice until the ideology took over and authentic expression gave way to what Stanley Crouch memorably summarized as a style “relying on comic book and horror film characters and images that he has used over and over and over.”
That so many of our leftist poets have repeated Mr. Baraka’s errors is self-evident. It also helps explain why, according to the National Endowment for the Arts, only 6.7 percent of American adults read a poem in their leisure hours over an entire year’s time
Outrage, obscenity, and condescending race talk should disqualify someone for public life in our society, and they generally do. But not in the republic of verse. Dozens of award-winning poets, many at elite universities, indulge in all three. Venezuela is collapsing and Cuba is exhausted, but Radical Chic is alive and well at a hundred open mic events on campus.
Think we’re kidding? Just check out Sonia Sanchez’s book “Homegirls and Handgrenades,” which won the American Book Award. Or read “Resistance, Rebellion, Life: 50 Poems Now” (published by Knopf), whose editor says in the volume, “We poets are the absolute antitheses of Trump.” One of the entries in the volume refers to the “malevolent / escalator descender / who firmly mounts the public / bench as a German / shepherd mounts a quivering mutt.”
Not only are #Resistance poets against this president, but clearly they are against good poetry, too. The empty theatricality of so much of this protest writing comes from the fact that these authors have confused emotional intensity with the craft of verse. They only talk to one another as well. The poems don’t impress anyone but those who share the indignant passions.
Poets need to get out more. If they want to overcome the emotionalism, they will do something genuinely inventive: attend a pro-Trump rally, talk to the people there, and write about them as if they were decent human beings.
• Mark Bauerlein is senior editor at First Things and professor of English at Emory University. He is the author of “The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future” (TarcherPerigee, 2008). Garrick Davis is the founding editor of the Contemporary Poetry Review.