Four Poems: A Post-Election Anthology

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Gwendolyn Brooks on May 2, 1950.

 

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)

If I should need to name, O Western World, your powerfulest scene
and show,
’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
Mississippi’s stream:
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
choosing,)
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,
life glows:
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)

It’s not that I think the people raised this statue to me,
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”

    (Gwendolyn Brooks, from The Womanhood, 1949)

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’”

* * *

Incantation

    (Czeslaw Milosz, 1968, trans. the author and Robert Pinsky)

Human reason is beautiful and invincible.
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.

LISTEN TO ROBERT PINSKY READ “’First fight. Then fiddle’”

29 thoughts on “Four Poems: A Post-Election Anthology

  1. Poetry, like fresh fruit, is best when served in season. These four make a welcome centerpiece for a table set in bitter times, each as tart or sweet as it’s author.
    Thank you for sharing here again. Missed you.

  2. Dear Robert,
    Thank you for these four fine and timely poems; Incantation was my favorite to read, and to hear you read. (In the spirit of your FPP, I look forward to reading it out loud myself–and having others listen. I’ll try it tonight, at Stone Soup Poetry {Out of the Blue Gallery, Central Square}, where I’m now the “interim host” because one was needed.

    Call me stubborn, but I’m not yet resigned to having a fascist (many people have, sadly, been slow to use the actual, appropriate word) U.S. “President.” I applaud the man who started that petition on Change.org calling for the Electoral College to NOT cast votes for someone who is clearly unfit–in every possible way–to be president (of anything).

  3. I was just reading something someone was saying about racism, that it is invincible, or appears so, at least to the speaker, but I prefer to think that it is not, and to act so, to believe in reason, to count on its invincibility over time. So I find a home in “Incantation.”

    There is something from each of these poems which speaks to the fears I’ve been hearing from some vulnerable people in my congregation, people with practical reasons to worry about what their future holds, who have neither time nor resources to take the long view, as I might in my circumstantial privilege. Most probably, the Brooks poem will suit them best.

    Thank you for these, especially for the Whitman poem. The power of the event–without reason–just a force with which we must contend as others have.

    • Robin, I like thinking about Milosz’s use of the term “invincible” in the opposite context of what you read about racism. Different readers have emphasized different poems among the four. My honor to pass them on to you, your congregation, others.

  4. Bethany, I agree that “reaction” in the easy sense can be less sustaining than reflection. As I try to say in my remarks above in response to Kathryn Levy, all four of these poets, for me, offer something I need. Thank you, too.

  5. Cardenal delivers a slap-poem against dictatorship. The use of the first person “no es que yo crea” makes the distance between us and the dictator palpable. How pertinent and uncanny.
    Thanks, Robert.

    • I’m drawn to the layers of audacity/sinvergüenza in the Cardenal poem. First from the poet, who makes the artifice and egoism of the dictator so clear. Then, of course, from the imagined voice of Somoza. It’s idiotic that Somoza unveils his own statue while aware that it serves no purpose. It’s also disturbing to realize that he can do it anyway.

      Cardenal is a master of capturing this balance. He points out the humorous nonsensicality of what can happen under dictatorship, and unveils at the same time a terrifying thought: that dictators have the power to act on their own egoism.

      • Sara, it’s Cardenal’s joke, imagining or creating the voice of a self-aware Somoza, who is still his malign self– that I admire (envy?) and that you define here. The egotism is unaware, stupid, and the poet here somehow creates that unaware, stupid voice as knowing itself. As if, I guess I should say. Thank you!

  6. Dear Robert,

    A wonderful selection for these dark times. Milosz is particularly important for me right now. I’m keeping his Selected Poems by my bedside. I also have your new book there. I’m reading it again now and loving it even more than I did on first reading. It’s sad and funny and very moving.

    Erin Belieu tells me that you’re appearing at the Writers Resist event in NYC on January 15. I wish I could be there, but I’m helping to organize a Writers Resist event here on the East End of Long Island. I love the concept of these events and the attempt to reaffirm our shared values. Those of us who grew up in post-war America had it very lucky. I suppose now we will have to deal with some of the harsh realities many people across the globe have faced throughout history.

    I have to admit I’m frightened and a little worn out. But I take heart from your generous spirit and posts like this.

    Thank you,

    Kathryn

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    • Milosz– all four of these poets, in a sense– has seen the worst. In my own fear and fatigue, the long view of “Incantation,” the immediacy of Brooks’ poems, the confident laughter (and long view) of Cardenal’s. At the Writer’s Resist event in Manhattan on January 15, I’ll be thinking of your event on the East End, Kathryn, and the many others.

  7. I think that, out of four incredible poems, ‘Incantation’ is the most effective because the author has had time to live, to process, and reflect on the misery (and scattered, fragmentary joy) that he has seen. I distrust reactionary poetry — of the kind which seems to flourish after any sort of nationaly traumatic event, to be published, liked and shared without consideration. Such work most often resembles a scream. Having said that, Brooks’ use of form is brilliant. She’s hammered hot emotions to fit into a sheath. But then, all her work is like that. Carefully shaped, to serve a purpose. Anyway, thanks for this.

    • Clumsily, I accidentally posted above what I mean as a reply to Bethany: “Bethany, I agree that “reaction” in the easy sense can be less sustaining than reflection. As I try to say in my remarks above in response to Kathryn Levy, all four of these poets, for me, offer something I need. Thank you, too.”

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