Calvin Trillin is one of this country's most productive and frequently published poets. When he's in a pithy mood, he is also, word for word, one of our most highly remunerated. But neither he, nor anyone else, would claim that he is one of our best, and in terms of quality, his verse falls somewhere between that of Alexander Pope and the bathroom wall, generally tending to the latter.
He works in what might be called a middle-world of American political journalism, free to indulge in all the innuendo, calumny and half-truths that respectable publications eschew. As a poet who specializes in skewering the right-wing, he works with both a poetic and a hunting license. And yet, as a poet, there's something basically reputable about him, no matter how mean he is, that distinguishes him from the psychotic bloggers, obsessive conspiracy theorists and self-appointed prophets of extreme talk radio. Lump him in with other middle-world figures, polemicists like filmmaker Michael Moore and late-night comedians who reduce politicians to pure caricature.
Trillin, 68, likes to call himself a "Deadline Poet," a title that emphasizes his essential poetic talent: speed. More bluntly put, he is a doggerelist, toiling in the service of the poor, maligned Left, countering by example its unmerited reputation for humorlessness. A collection of the poems he has contributed weekly to the Nation since 1990 has just been published. "Obliviously On He Sails" (the title is the opening of a two-line poem about George W. Bush that ends with "with marks not quite as good as Quayle's") is partisan yet genial, often funny, sometimes godawful, and says much that, if published in any other form but verse, would be purely scurrilous.
"I find that you can say a lot, so long as it rhymes," says Trillin, from New York. For instance: Looking to rhyme the last name of former New York Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, Trillin came up with "sleaze-bag obbligato."
"You can't say that in prose," says Trillin. Nor can you breezily call Elliott Abrams (the National Security Council member who pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of misleading Congress during the Iran-contra scandal, and was later pardoned by George H.W. Bush) "a felon," or imply that the return to grace of John Poindexter (whose conviction on five felony charges after the same scandal was overturned) is a sign of the current administration's preference for criminals among its top ranks (High-level appointments now favor the guys / With rap sheets instead of CVs).
Trillin calls himself the country's only deadline poet. When confronted with evidence that William H. von Dreele, who has contributed politically themed verse to the conservative National Review for decades, might also be considered a deadline poet (he, too, soaks in the Sunday talk shows before putting pen to paper for a weekly deadline), Trillin responds cheerfully: "Well then I'd say my claim to be the only deadline poet is a simple lie, a boast and a lie."
Von Dreele's style, like his politics, contrasts sharply with Trillin's. Von Dreele, who is just shy of 80, belongs to the old guard of the National Review. He's a gracious relic of the magazine's good old days, when being conservative had less to do with attack-dog politics and religious fundamentalism, and was more about a wry pessimism when it came to the frailties of Man. When you talk to von Dreele, and read his verse, you imagine a world of blue blazers and crisply pressed khakis, a world where the sun hangs low over the golf course and darts of orange light glint on the surface of your glacially chilled martini.
Von Dreele, who also lives in New York, has spent his golden years (and much of his middle age, too) warning of the decline and fall of the American Empire. His allusions are classical and historical; his style is allusive, with less of Trillin's singsong meter, and a more self-conscious and sinuous sense of poetic form. But he can produce a dark ditty with the best of them:
The Hutu hate the Tutsi,
The short detest the tall,
Rwanda hates Burundi,
Uganda hates them all.
Published in December 1996, the poem paints Africa with a very broad brush, and ends with a warning:
Zaire is decomposing,
Mobutu's being nursed.
If I were Mr. Clinton,
I'd save the District first.
The last four lines of his poem (caveat: von Dreele modestly refuses to call what he does "poetry") demonstrate the distinctive traits of his style: "It's sardonic, it's mordant and it tries to be funny in the last line. That's the light verse tradition," he says. "You have to have a really sock 'em last line."
Von Dreele, whose career includes long years at IBM working on the company's house publication, cites Dorothy Parker as inspiration and distances himself from the more formless playfulness of Ogden Nash. Trillin, by contrast, sees himself as a prankster and distances himself from the entire tradition of art poetry. Von Dreele does a dressed-down version of Byron: knowing, snarky and clever. Trillin is a scrappier voice, close relative to all those too-clever high school students who got away with skewering the teacher with dirty limericks (because good teachers love a brat who can spin a funny line).
"Unlike somebody like Wordsworth, or Alexander Pope -- those malingerers -- I actually have to write a poem every week," Trillin says. "They could sit and wait for the sun to set, the sheep to come home."
But for all his irreverence, Trillin says he became more determined about using poetry to tar and feather public figures during the lead-up to the Iraq war, which he opposed. His new book, subtitled "The Bush Administration in Rhyme," has a more focused and tart political edge than an earlier book ("Deadline Poet") that dealt with a much wider variety of subjects. In his earlier book, the whole world was a target, including Democrats ("The man is known for quo pro quidness / In Texas, that's how folks do bidness," was written to skewer not the Bushes, but former Democratic vice-presidential nominee Lloyd Bentsen).
"I think I got more serious when it became apparent that they were intent on starting a war with Iraq," says Trillin. "I don't mean the poems got serious, they were still meant to be entertaining. I was sort of enraged about the whole thing. I was a bad person to have at dinner parties. I was outraged that people were letting them get away with it, including the Democrats, doves afraid to coo."
The self-deflating quality that von Dreele often employs in the "sock 'em" last line shows up in Trillin's verse as a title longer than the poem. "An Analysis of the Turkish-American Alliance, Its Diplomatic Significance, and Its Role in Establishing Democracy in the Middle East," is the heading of a March 17, 2003, poem that reads, in its entirety:
Get allies? That's not hard to do.
We'll simply go and buy a few.
Trillin says there's a simple reason for such compression. He gets paid $100 for each poem no matter how long they are.
"When you want to get the buzz of working for top dollar in your field, write a two-line poem," he says.
Which is a self-deflating way of avoiding the provocative claims present in many of these short poems. Was the long and painful process of trying to coax Turkey into supporting the Iraq war a matter of bribery and blackmail? Checkbook diplomacy? Just business as usual in a venal world?
Like Trillin, von Dreele also gets paid $100 per poem. And like Trillin, he uses his poetry to put words into the mouths of people, indulge in wanton schadenfreude, and tease out all the small ironies in political life that are generally spoken only among likeminded people.
The essence of a partisan worldview -- and we're all guilty -- is confidence about things that can't be proved: the motivations of other people, their psychological makeup, the dark truths about their lives for which there is as yet no smoking gun. These speculations are supported with a mix of facts, fantasy and the guiding power of our most basic, operating truths about the world. To opponents of the war, of course our allies were bought off; to supporters, of course there were negotiations in the classic realpolitik tradition. Boil these thoughts down even further, and you have the archetypal worldviews that keep us divided: We play hardball and that's wrong; or, we play hardball because that's how the game is played.
It is the role of the Deadline Poet (and all the other denizens of the political middle-world) to articulate the simple thoughts widely held by half the polarized electorate -- e.g. Bush is a moron, Kerry is a snob -- yet can't be directly spoken in respectable journals. Coated with a sweet veneer of verbal virtuosity, these truths slip into the political bloodstream. The pleasure of the poet, and the reader, is seeing these mean little memes circulating freely, doing their damage, a leperous distilment poured into the porches of our ears.
Von Dreele, who was a conservative in the 1960s when it wasn't fashionable to be conservative, got to the heart of the matter in a little poem he wrote years ago:
I swear, if on the Senate floor
The shades of orators of yore
Appeared -- like, say, Diogenes --
The Press would push the Kennedys.
Indeed, if Jacob Javits spoke
Bereft of toga, shorn of cloak;
With nothing on but BVDs --
They'd focus on the Kennedys.