Four Poems: A Post-Election Anthology


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
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)


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)

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’”

Two Songs of Place and Displacement

Conakry, Guinea, 2013.

Conakry, Guinea, 2013.


The 20th-century term DP, for displaced person, with its old overtones of slave labor, death camps, and forced migration, has expanded in meaning to include many forms of displacement. The condition, too, has expanded—in the 21st century, are more living people “displaced” than not?

A range of displacement, from genocide and exile all the way to economic migration and tourism, is suggested by Elsewhere, a fascinating book created by Eliot Weinberger for the Poetry Foundation in 2014: an anthology of 14 modern poems dealing with an unfamiliar setting, with examples including Federico García Lorca’s nightmare of New York, a Japanese poet visiting Paris, a Nicaraguan poet imagining Norway.

On that theme, here are two poems in English translation, one from Elsewhere and one much older. In quite different ways, both poems confront culture in relation to time. In both, the ancestral past is at once remote and immediate: lost, yet also enduring all around us, and inside us.

Any attempt at translation, knowingly or not, good or bad, must engage a braided web of remoteness and closeness. A translated poem can become a work of art in the new language, as it somehow incorporates that tangle of differences and similarities among languages and their histories.

First, here is a translation by Langston Hughes, from the Haitian French of his friend the poet and revolutionary Jacques Roumain:


It’s the long road to Guinea
death takes you down.
Here are the boughs, the trees, the forest.
Listen to the sound of the wind in its long hair
of eternal night.

It’s the long road to Guinea
where your fathers await you without impatience.
Along the way, they talk.
They wait.
This is the hour when the streams rattle
like beads of bone.

It’s the long road to Guinea.
No bright welcome will be made for you
in the dark land of dark men:

Under a smoky sky pierced by the cry of birds
around the eye of the river
the eyelashes of the trees open on decaying light.
There, there awaits you beside the water a quiet village,
and the hut of your fathers, and the hard ancestral stone
where your head will rest at last.


Weinberger, in his note on Hughes’ translation, observes “a neglected story in the history of international modernism.” That is: “the network of poets that once existed across the African diaspora from the 1920s to the early 1970s, embracing such movements as Negritude and Black Nationalism, publishing and translating each other’s work in magazines in Africa, the U.S. and the Caribbean.” In her book Race, American Literature, and Transnational Modernisms, Anita Patterson describes Hughes’ friendship with Roumain, his protest at Roumain’s political imprisonment, and Roumain’s relation to many European and American modernists.

Hughes artfully conveys a layered urgency, the effort to imagine Africa as a kind of translation from the post-slavery experience of Haiti. The landscape is animated—“the wind in its long hair of eternal night,” “the eye of the river,” “the eyelashes of the trees”—and dreamy, rather than daylit. The road is long and mysterious, the ancestors are patient, emphasizing that the imaginative work of finding home is difficult, a pilgrimage that ends in “the hard ancestral stone.”

An interesting contrast, also involving ancient stone, is a poem written in Latin long after Latin was a spoken language. Even the 16th-century Italian poet’s pen name, Janus Vitalis Panormitanus, is a kind of translation of his actual name, Giovan Francesco Vitale, with the appended “of Palermo” relevant to the subject of place and displacement. In his poem, a stranger in Rome asks directions to Rome, unaware that he already is in Rome. The poem has been translated by Ezra Pound and Robert Lowell, but the version I love is by J.V. Cunningham:



You that a stranger in mid-Rome seek Rome
And can find nothing in mid-Rome of Rome,
Behold this mass of walls, these abrupt rocks,
Where the vast theatre lies overwhelmed.
Here, here is Rome! Look how the very corpse
Of greatness still imperiously breathes threats!
The world she conquered, strove herself to conquer,
Conquered that nothing be unconquered by her.
Now conqueror Rome’s interred in conquered Rome,
And the same Rome conquered and conqueror.
Still Tiber stays, witness of Roman fame,
Still Tiber flows on swift waves to the sea.
Learn hence what Fortune can: the unmoved falls,
And the ever-moving will remain forever.


As Hughes does with Roumain, Cunningham finds an idiom that has conviction: the authority not just of speech, but of speech coming from a specific, particular voice and place. For Cunningham, the voice of classical aplomb: a 20th-century, Irish-American, working class scholar rendering the severe lyric voice of a 16th-century Italian humanist.

Partly lost in translation, and partly recalled by the fact of translation, are the European imperialist overtones and undertones of Roumain composing his poem “Guinea” in French. Similarly lost and recalled are the Imperial meanings and undercurrents of Vitale (or Panormitanus) composing “Rome” in Latin.

“Now conqueror Rome’s interred in conquered Rome” is a line to remember. It conveys the immensity of time along with its presence. I would say the same about “the long road to Guinea/ where your fathers await you without impatience,” “at the hour when the streams rattle/ like beads of bone.” There’s an exhilaration in these poems, with the costly instrument of French, English, Latin, turned toward the unexpected joy of arrival.