Often, the best works of art about an historic event come from long before. Here are the four poems from the past—as I posted in Slate on November 17—in response to the 2016 Presidential election. For this Forum, an audio file for each poem.
First, Walt Whitman’s “Election Day, 1884” written about the nasty Cleveland–Blaine election of that year. Whitman says that the heart of the election is “not in the chosen” but with “the act itself the main, the quadrennial choosing.” He speaks of voting day not as sacred but as “powerful,” comparing it not to forest glades or solemn cathedrals but to the fluid, dynamic energy of Niagara Falls.
Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal’s “Somoza Unveils Somoza’s Statue of Somoza at the Somoza Stadium” imagines the voice of egomania in power. The poem’s concluding insight about hate, a terrific final chord in Donald Walsh’s translation, hisses even more effectively in the second person plural familiar of the Spanish: “la odiáis.”
Gwendolyn Brooks’ sonnet from her sequence The Womanhood uses that form to present the relation between art and battle, with their related priorities and demands: a practical, urgent struggle for a black woman poet of Brooks’ lifetime. “To arms, to armor,” she writes, with her fluent mastery of the sonnet form enacting a victory.
And as the final element in this little anthology, Czeslaw Milosz in his “Incantation” invokes the world as it should be and—the poem maintains—will be. It’s a kind of spell or prophecy by the Polish poet, who lived through both the Nazi occupation of his country and the succeeding Stalinist regime, to write this poem during his years in the United States.
Election Day, November, 1884
(Walt Whitman, 1884)
’Twould not be you, Niagara—nor you, ye limitless prairies—nor
your huge rifts of canyons, Colorado,
Nor you, Yosemite—nor Yellowstone, with all its spasmic geyserloops
ascending to the skies, appearing and disappearing,
Nor Oregon’s white cones—nor Huron’s belt of mighty lakes—nor
This seething hemisphere’s humanity, as now, I’d name—the still small
voice vibrating—America’s choosing day,
(The heart of it not in the chosen—the act itself the main, the quadrennial
The stretch of North and South arous’d—sea-board and inland—Texas to
Maine—the Prairie States—Vermont, Virginia, California,
The final ballot-shower from East to West—the paradox and conflict,
The countless snow-flakes falling— (a swordless conflict,
Yet more than all Rome’s wars of old, or modern Napoleon’s): the
peaceful choice of all,
Or good or ill humanity—welcoming the darker odds, the dross:
—Foams and ferments the wine? it serves to purify—while the heart pants,
These stormy gusts and winds waft precious ships,
Swell’d Washington’s, Jefferson’s, Lincoln’s sails.
LISTEN TO ROBERT PINSKY READ “Election Day, November, 1884”
* * *
Somoza Unveils Somoza’s Statue of Somoza at the Somoza Stadium
(Ernesto Cardenal, 1954, trans. Donald Walsh)
because I know better than you that I ordered it myself.
Nor that I have any illusions about passing with it into posterity
because I know the people will one day tear it down.
Nor that I wished to erect to myself in life
the monument you’ll not erect to me in death:
I put up this statue just because I know you’ll hate it.
Somoza desveliza la estatua de Somoza en el estadio Somoza
No es que yo crea que el pueblo me erigió esta estatua
porque yo sé mejor que vosotros que la ordené yo mismo.
Ni tampoco que pretenda pasar con ella a la posteridad
porque yo sé que el pueblo la derribará un día.
Ni que haya querido erigirme a mí mismo en vida
el momento que muerto no me erigiréis vosotros:
sino que erigí esta estatua porque sé que la odiáis.
LISTEN TO ROBERT PINSKY READ “Somoza Unveils Somoza’s Statue of Somoza at the Somoza Stadium”
* * *
“First fight. Then fiddle”
4 First fight. Then fiddle. Ply the slipping string
With feathery sorcery; muzzle the note
With hurting love; the music that they wrote
Bewitch, bewilder. Qualify to sing
Threadwise. Devise no salt, no hempen thing
For the dear instrument to bear. Devote
The bow to silks and honey. Be remote
A while from malice and from murdering.
But first to arms, to armor. Carry hate
In front of you and harmony behind.
Be deaf to music and to beauty blind.
Win war. Rise bloody, maybe not too late
For having first to civilize a space
Wherein to play your violin with grace.
LISTEN TO ROBERT PINSKY READ “’First fight. Then fiddle’”
* * *
(Czeslaw Milosz, 1968, trans. the author and Robert Pinsky)
No bars, no barbed wire, no pulping of books,
No sentence of banishment can prevail against it.
It establishes the universal ideas in language,
And guides our hand so we write Truth and Justice
With capital letters, lie and oppression with small.
It puts what should be above things as they are,
It is an enemy of despair and a friend of hope.
It does not know Jew from Greek or slave from master,
Giving us the estate of the world to manage.
It saves austere and transparent phrases
From the filthy discord of tortured words.
It says that everything is new under the sun,
Opens the congealed fist of the past.
Beautiful and very young are Philo-Sophia
And poetry, her ally in the service of the good.
As late as yesterday Nature celebrated their birth,
The news was brought to the mountains by a unicorn and an echo,
Their friendship will be glorious, their time has no limit,
Their enemies have delivered themselves to destruction.
Pingback: My Tongue Is My Choir Singing To My Heart And Soul — Robert Pinsky’s Samurai Song | Becoming is Superior to Being
Reading these again, now nearly a year later. I had forgotten them. Again, thanks for offering them up. Cardenal’s poem is particularly apt today in particular.
Dear Mr. Pinsky, First I wish that you would have included William Blake’s glorious lines from “Jerusalem” which would certainly augment this brace of poems–you know the ones: I will not cease my mental fight, etc. The most interesting poem is Gwendolyn Brooke’s I think–from the point of view of language and the complexity of message–which seems definitely to have connection with the Mental Fight of which Blake speaks. The Whitman is not so good. This is from the “trying to sound like a Poet” phase of the Good Gray poet. If I recall correctly Walt takes on earlier versions of election day in America in earlier–and much better–poems. (Maybe Song of Myself lists elections as part of a catalogue somewhere.) I want to go back and look closer at these poems but for now I’d just like to register my shock at the results of the election and the ham-stringing of artistic response, poetic or other in terms of “real world” options of action. I recently read an artricle from the Irish Literary Review that tells us that Trump has a quote from Blake–the one about the road of excess leading to the palace of wisdom–enshrined in his library. It just gets worse, folks. Thanks for the chance to participate. Jesse Glass
Again– interesting how different readers emphasize or prefer (or, for you here Jesse, the opposite!) different poems. (I read somewhere that the poet most quoted in the House of Commons debates is . . . William Blake.)
Dear Robert, thank you, as always. Brooks’ fraught, haunting sonnet was composed in the aftermath of World War II and at the dawn of the Civil Rights struggle. Elsewhere in the sequence, a mother-speaker wonders what she can give or do to ensure her children’s survival. Here, the speaker’s call to action is tempered by the poet’s mastery of form and modernist difficulty, affirming our need for art, the dear instrument.
Thank you, Anita. In a different way from the experience-authority of Cardenal or Milosz, the experience of outright, mass-scale totalitarian regimes, but with equal conviction, Brooks speaks partly with the authority of a specific historical circumstance.
Robert, thank you for inviting me to this conversation. I’ve enjoyed reading all of these, and appreciate the tones of the Brooks and Milosz the best. The declarative nature of “Incantation” pleases me– maybe it apes some of the authority of a document like the Declaration of Independence in its forthrightness? The King James psalms in its beautiful, long lines? Somehow sounding like those and a philosophic treatise of the utmost importance, anyhow.
The Brooks, which I’ve never read before–you’re still teaching me–, feels to me like a supremely *responsible* poem, in that it doesn’t let us turn away from thinking about the war side of “war and peace.” The language itself is incredibly alive, and I especially liked:
The bow to silks and honey. Be remote
A while from malice and from murdering.
But first to arms, to armor. Carry hate
In front of you and harmony behind.
Be deaf to music and to beauty blind.”
It’s probably no accident that in the wake of this election I’ve preferred poems like these– declarative, imperative– to other kinds of writing. I want not to be soothed, or hushed, or to listen to lullabies. I can’t get over the word “remote” though I’m unsure of exactly why I love it so much. The alliteration is part of the life in this, and so is the syntax. I hope it’s OK that I share this bit of text, which I put on my social network in the hours after the election. It’s from a book I think very worth reading right now– Rebecca West’s *Black Lamb and Grey Falcon*, which she wrote in the years leading up to WWII. I think there is some conversation between the excerpt and the Brooks poem, which is why I share:
“… [w]hat the pacifist wants is to be defeated…By that they prove themselves inferior to their opponents, who do not want to separate themselves from the main channel of life, who believe quite simply that aggression and tyranny are the best methods of guaranteeing the future of man and therefore accept the responsibility of applying them. The friends of liberty have indeed no ground whatsoever for regarding themselves as in any way superior to their opponents, since they are in effect on their side in wishing defeat and not victory for their own principles… I looked into my own heart and I knew that I was not innocent. Often I wonder whether I would be able to suffer for my principles if the need came, and it strikes me as a matter of the highest importance. That should not be so. I should ask myself with far greater urgency whether I have done everything possible to carry those principles into effect, and how I can attain power to make them absolutely victorious. But those questions I put only with my mind. They do not excite my guts, which wait anxiously while I ponder my gift for martyrdom…I began to weep, for the leftwing people among whom I had lived all my life had in their attitude to foreign politics achieved such a betrayal. They were always right, they never imposed their rightness.”
That’s from the climactic chapter of the book called “Plain of Kosovo II,” where the epic simile of the title is fully explored, and West condemns the European liberals who were unable to put a stop to the rise of the regime in Germany.
I think, Mr. Rosenwald, above, speaks for many of us when he wonders about the value of poems, and the culture that surrounds them. But I hope we don’t forget how these works sustain us, teach us, and can lead us to each other: exactly what you’ve facilitated here. Thanks again.
That’s a very striking passage, the West passage. I don’t want to hijack the discussion by commenting on it, but can’t hold back. The critique she’s making of pacifism is a common one – it’s Orwell’s as well – but not in my judgment true of all pacifists. (Gandhi surely didn’t want to be defeated!) The Library of American just published an _War No More_, an anthology I made of American antiwar and peace writing, and a good many of the pieces collected there are by people who wanted (and want) to win.
I’m very glad to have provided a space for this exchange about pacifism between Lawrence R and Eric P– all the more because it includes Lawrence’s Library of America anthology and the West passage Eric gives us.
Mr. Rosenwald– I don’t experience this as a hijacking at all. I hope these are the conversations this forum is intended to facilitate. Antiwar, pro-peace: are these, in your anthology (which I will certainly be looking into!) synonymous with pacifism as a philosophical or ethical commitment?
I think that something is unfortunately obscured by the way that I’ve presented the excerpt here: to allow the passage to make sense, I had to leave out some of the site-specific conversation of the Kosovo plain, and start with the term “pacifist,” when much of her critique seems pointed at liberalism or left-wing politics generally. I don’t think West necessarily *specifically* opposed pacifism, though I’m not familiar enough with her politics to speak to them either way.
For my part, I don’t know if I’m opposed either. I think I’m mainly just extremely nervous about the political climate, and wondering if I would, in the last instance, “…impose [my] rightness,” or whether it could ever be right to do so.
I appreciate the comment and look forward to reading through _War No More_!
And I look forward to reading West’s work! I’m grateful for your explanation of the context. No, War No More doesn’t include only texts expressing pacifism as a philosophical or ethical commitment. Write me if you like at email@example.com!
Eric, you make me more aware of the temporal and qualitative senses of Brooks’ “first.”
I’m also thinking about how different readers emphasize different poems among these four– some people respond most to Whitman; for others, his poem seems ameliorative, or not urgent. I agree that Milosz has some of the tone of a founding document. (I don’t have the trot he gave me, so am not sure how much my American mind may have created or emphasized that. The long view of “very young” and “recent,” the idea that the good will win in the end: does the pace of climate change invalidate that viewpoint?
I think that’s a great question, Robert. I forget what poem I read, very recently, that included the trope of winter ending, spring coming around again… Anyhow, it made me think that those cycles– considered eternal for so long–are at risk of permanent disfigurement. Much of our love and nature poetry might not as easily pass the fact checkers (where is the poetry fact checked, the New Yorker?) in a few years!
I don’t think the viewpoint is invalidated necessarily, but that maybe we’ll soon find that we have to favor hope or faith over assuredness, expectation. Thinking over the Milosz and Whitman… it seems like Whitman’s view is very long, that it includes a few hundred years, but is, at bottom, bounded by the nation, and therefore temporally limited in a way that Milosz’s view is not.
His is the sort of scale that makes it impossible for mere mortals to get the full picture. Maybe that’s more reassuring in this moment, in that it’s more distancing, something like Carl Sagan’s “pale blue dot” speech? The further from the details of our woeful present we get, the more easy it is to reassure ourselves that things will come out alright in the end?
They’re very striking poems, I look forward to returning to them. But reading them, I’m troubled by the same unease I’m feeling in relation to every thoughtful conversation I’m part of, every intense esthetic experience I’m blessed enough to have, namely: how much of anything that human beings do along these lines, how much do our thoughtfulness, our beautiful shapings of our passion, matter to the people who right now are in control of our government, to the people who voted that government in? What would they think of these poems, what do they think of poems generally, and how much does that matter?
Well, if there’s an answer to that here, Larry, maybe it is in the final lines of the Milosz and Cardenal’s confident 4th line, where even the dictator says “yo sé que el pueblo la derribará un día.” As I say to Eric Parkison above, that long view may be invalidated, or qualified, by the pace of climate change. I do assign authority to these poets who have seen darker political circumstances, not just from the threshold.