BY BEENISH AHMED
The election that declared Republican Donald Trump president-elect on Tuesday has been the most divisive in recent history. Here are four poems that cut across some of the main issues that have emerged in the face off between he and Democratic Candidate Hillary Clinton.
"Still I Rise" by Maya Angelou
“The tears that had slipped down my dress left unsurprising dark spots, and made the front yard blurry and even more unreal. The world had taken a deep breath and was having doubts about continuing to revolve,” Maya Angelou wrote in her essay, “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” after relating an anecdote of a band of young white girls taunting her stately grandmother.
Watching her grandmother, a successful business owner, solemnly take in the mocking jeers and flashing of private parts from the unwashed girls left an indelible mark on Angelou, who writes that she was about 10 at the time: “I suppose my lifelong paranoia was born in those cold, molasses-slow minutes.”
For some, the results of this presidential election has caused the same fit of emotions -- the same questioning of the world’s revolution, the same birth of paranoia as a character trait.
The groups of people now president-elect Donald Trump derided on the campaign trail -- women, Muslims, Jews, Mexicans, LGBT folks, the disabled -- must now contend with the fact that nearly half of Americans voted for such vitriol in polling stations across this country.
The fact of his hate speech has given rise to paranoia about our neighbors -- for either side of the spectrum -- then will likely be as lifelong as Angelou’s paranoia.
Having so well characterized a blow that feels, for many, to be a personal one, Angelou reminds us to stand up against those eager to tear us down. References to Trump’s sexually aggressive language and discussions of sexual assault have been plentiful, and so singling out of a woman news anchor his sexually aggressive towards a news anchor who was doing her job.
Many women, world leaders included, are attacked in sexist and sexually aggressive ways or in coded sexist language, when men tend to be critiqued for actual performance measures. It is as if women are faulted for being women in the workplace, and not just for their faults in the workplace. Responses to Hillary Clinton’s candidacy have been outsized example of this phenomenon marked by sexist comments that suggest her body as being inadequate for the presidency.
Angelou has also offers heart in the face of such unfair treatment in her poem “Still I Rise.”
Here’s an excerpt of the full poem:
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
"America" by Allen Ginsberg
Following the election, there was a frantic parsing of exit polls. Trump had not been expected to win by any measure. He did not win the popular vote, and yet, in a neck-and-neck race that he actually lost by 200,000 popular votes, the victorious candidate will have a deep divide to bridge as president.
Allen Ginsberg put himself in the center of such a divide through “America,” a poem that is a loose, audacious conversation with the country itself.
“The rhetorical model for ‘America,’” according to poet Aaron Belz, “appears to be Walt Whitman’s ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,’ a poem in free verse of similarly uneven line-lengths, punctuated by breath, romantically declaiming what it means to live and work in America.”
He adds that both Whitman and Ginsberg take on America in a way that is uniquely American:
“Both poets, despite how they align politically, use poetry to transcend ‘us and them’ rhetoric and put themselves in the middle of the problem, as well as in the middle of the solution. Whitman’s and Ginsberg’s voices endure because they are humble without being self-effacing; they are intense without becoming shrill. As such, they are models for our rhetoric as we discuss American culture and politics.”
Halfway through the poem, Ginsberg takes on the identity of his country as his own, writing:
It occurs to me that I am America.
I am talking to myself again.
And yet, there was much in Ginsberg that his country refused to recognize.
According to a biography by Michael Schumacher, “he listed his lifelong companion, Peter Orlovsky, as his spouse in his Who’s Who entry” and “became the subject of a voluminous FBI dossier” because of his views towards drugs and communism.
This tension of values is apparent in his poem, which opens with a sense of entitlement (“America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.”) and ends with a sense of indebtedness (“America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.”).
Listen to Ginsberg read the poem below:
"I, Too" by Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes wrote “I, Too” in a moment of desperation.
Arnold Rampersad, who wrote an extensive biography of the so-called “Poet Laureate of the Negro Race” told THE ALIGNIST that Hughes wrote the poem while stranded in Genoa, Italy.
“He had lost all his money and had his passport stolen and he was stranded for many weeks in Genoa while he was trying to get home to the United States,” Rampersad explained. “He also had to endure the fact that several ships came into port heading to the United States, but their captains would not take Hughes on as they were prepared to do for white people who had been stranded in one way or another and so he watched the ships sail off to America without him while he remained close to extreme hunger, in many cases, in Genoa.”
Despite the circumstances in which it was written, Hughes ended it on a note of optimism for a time when “the darker brother” would be offered a seat at the table.
The poem was engraved on a wall of the newly-opened National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, because of its singular significance, according to David C. Ward, a senior historian at the National Portrait Gallery.
As he wrote for Smithsonian Magazine, the poem refers to the scholar W.E.B. Dubois, and his concept of a “double consciousness” among African Americans.
“The sense of being divided in two was not just the root of the problem not just for the African-American, but for the United States,” Ward explained. “As Lincoln had spoken about the coexistence of slavery with freedom: ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’”
And so, Hughes’ iconic poem ‘I, Too’ is a testament to the ravages of a self divided as well as a nation divided. It’s an appeal for recognition of the relationship between all Americans -- the “darker brother” and his white counterpart.
Although written in a time of far more overt social and racial fissures than our own, the poem offers hope that racial divides will give way to bonds not just of civility, but of a family.
Read it in full here:
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,"
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.
"Good Bones" by Maggie Smith
The poem gained renown as Americans struggled to make sense ofthe country’s most deadly shooting on record -- an attack on an Orlando gay club that left 49 dead in June.
“Good Bones” offers a sense of half-hearted hope for a world it describes as “at least half terrible” -- and contends with the sort conflict many pro-Clinton parents and teachers struggled with this week, that is, how to explain this “half terrible” world to their children and students.
“I think of this poem, and many of the poems I’ve written since having children, as being conflicted: How do we love this world as it is, with all of its flaws and dangers, and how do we to teach our kids to love it?” Smith said in an interview with Slate. “How do we ‘sell them the world’ without lying to them about its realities? How do we let them see the rotten parts—because we must, eventually—and how do we empower them to do good and force change?”
When asked about the role of poetry in the wake of tragedy, she said, “[P]oetry can be a light when things get dark.”
Here’s her poem: