It’s become harder, in 2016, to say what makes us American; harder to identify our common values; harder, even, for us to agree on the difference between facts and fabricated news. America has always contained multitudes, so to speak — only recently, the contradictions feel irreconcilable.
There have already been the statistical attempts at explanation, the political science, the demographic data, the economic and the ethnographic deep dives.
But at this moment of re-reckoning, some of the answers also lie in culture, in the stories we’ve been telling ourselves. The United States has a history of finding and defining itself in verse. The tradition runs from Walt Whitman to Langston Hughes to Bob Dylan to Allen Ginsberg to Maya Angelou to Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton.”
For a country without a shared religion, poetry performs some of the same duties. It is revelatory and intensely personal, but it is also a kind of communion. There’s a reason poets take pride of place at presidential inaugurations, why the Library of Congress appoints poets laureate. Poems can be spiritual glue.
In search of a better understanding of America, I recently chatted with Stephen Burt, an English professor at Harvard whom the New York Times has described as “one of the most influential poetry critics of his generation.” He recently published a book to help people understand important American poems from the past three decades.
I called him up to ask him to explain the nation today through poetry.
Burt has tried to reason through recent events using poetry. Recently, he wrote that Trumpism convinced him that “the radicals were right. Poems with community roots, poems that have little to do with elite institutions, are singling out the best parts of our future.”
Maybe you think the world of poetry is insular. Maybe you think that it only represents the same coastal elites who turned up their noses at Donald Trump. Maybe, by the end of this, you’ll change your mind.
1. What, at this point, is poetry even?
BURT: Poetry now is a word that refers to several different related — but not identical — art forms.
It refers to the beautiful thoughtful and alarming poems and prose and book project of Claudia Rankine, who’s certainly the most influential American poet of the last couple of years.
It refers to the quite challenging and quite resistant sets of words put together to be admired and interpreted by people who are already into that sort of thing, somewhat analogous to free jazz or academic classical music. Which is stuff that I really like, but is late modernist and is going to have a limited audience.
“Poetry” refers to the ways of putting words together to make memorable sounds, that are still very much practiced by good contemporary poets who work in old forms like Melissa Range or Alicia Stallings — forms and ways of using language that go back, in America through James Merrill and Richard Wilbur, to Chaucer if you like.
It also, of course, refers to ways of putting words together expressively and beautifully and emotionally, that are designed as much to be heard and seen as to be read on a page. What we sometimes call “performance poetry” (which is a fine term) or “slam poetry” (which is a problematic term).
That last kind of poetry, which is a kind that I’m least connected to, that has strong ties to very young composers and listeners, and ties to communities of color, is the kind of poetry that maybe makes the most difference right now in terms of American politics, because it is alerting young listeners and alerting people who aren’t necessarily already politically engaged to what’s going on right now.
But those are all valid art forms. Those are all interesting art forms. They’ve all got different kinds of heritages that go back decades or centuries.
2. America was built by poems
GUO: I have to warn you that I know so very little about poetry. I can’t even tell you the last time I read a poem. Actually that’s not true. I did read parts of Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen” a few years ago. But I feel that many people are like me — they more or less stop reading poetry after high school or college.
And I think that’s a shame — for many reasons, but particularly right now, at this very cloudy moment in time. Because it’s interesting to think about how poetry has shaped the image of America, how it has contributed to nation-building, and maybe how it has defined what it means to be American.
BURT: You don’t have to go very far back to find page-based, book-based poetry — poetry that draws on very old devices, and poetry whose traditions are recognizably English and European as well as American — you don’t have to go very far back to find that kind of poetry being central to American public education from primary grades to high school, and central to what American institutions tell Americans that America is about.
My mother’s parents knew a lot of Longfellow by heart. That was not unusual for members of the Greatest Generation. The African American people of that generation all knew a poem with words by James Weldon Johnson that had been set to music. It was known as the “Negro National Anthem.” People knew Langston Hughes. People knew some Emily Dickinson.
Memorized and recited and talked about and shared for fun, poetry was part of popular culture. It was part of what American institutions told young and old Americans the United States was about for decades and decades and decades.
And for a lot of reasons, page-based, book-based poetry is less important to what Americans think America is.
Longfellow isn’t central anymore, even though a lot of people still live on streets and go to schools named after him. Just as, you know, Toscanini on NBC used to be central to what American musical culture was about. We have other things now.
And the other things are great — “Hamilton” is great! If we recover something like a functioning, well-informed democratic polity — if it hasn’t been wrecked for good by the people who are getting in now, if millennials and teenagers can come to maturity in a world where we hold free and fair elections and agree on what fact is — Lin-Manuel Miranda is going to have a lot to do with that.
Rap of course is a kind of poetry. And “Hamilton” really is in a line of very talented writers succeeding in using verbal skills and poetic skills to put forward the best imaginable version of America, and getting heard. It's part of a history of successful public poetics that extends back at least to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Walt Whitman in the 1850s.
3. Which poems explain Trump’s America?
GUO: If we fast-forward 150 years to 2016, we now have people saying how it’s such a divided country. We have people saying — and I don’t necessarily agree with this — that we have an America with too many fragmented identities butting up against each other. We have people complaining about the liberal left’s embrace of identity politics. And since Donald Trump’s election, we have people saying that we have neglected, and that we have to better understand, the Americans who voted for Trump.
So I was wondering: What kinds of poetry or poets writing today might capture some of the feelings of a Trump voter. Is there representation of that slice of America in contemporary poetry? And is there a way to understand each other better through poetry?
BURT: You’ve just asked a couple of questions at once and I want to disentangle them.
One question is: Can poetry do something to preserve the rule of law and make America better or ameliorate the mess we’re now in. And the answer is: not a lot.
Because the people who are reading the kinds of poetry that I follow are overwhelmingly Clinton voters — almost exclusively, actually, which wasn’t the case in previous elections. The informed conservative elites, some of whom are interesting as poets and poetry critics (I follow some on Twitter!), were not Trump voters.
Poetry can explain individuals to ourselves, and change our attitudes, and help us see the complexity of the world, but the kind of poetry I follow isn’t going to change public opinion directly. Other art forms can — if you’re a TV writer, you have some interesting challenges, or if you’re a country musician, somebody like Brad Paisley. But poetry not so much.
Another question is: Are there interesting poets who capture the dispossession and the feeling of being left out or left behind, or simply the economic distress that led to Trump’s win? Yes.
The particular motivation for Trump voters that you’re talking about, which is the motivation that’s the most complicated, has to do with dislocation, dispossession, feeling left out, feeling left behind. The sense that Toledo, [Ohio,] or Cincinnati or Utica, New York, is declining, is less important, isn’t going to do well in the future. That’s not a sense that necessarily comes from racism. That’s a sense that comes from actual economic change. These are towns where jobs are not necessarily coming back. Things do seem to be getting harder — at least if you’re white, and especially if you’re a white dude.
So, what poetry speaks to that? To the sense of rural America and industrial America in decline, to a sense of insecurity — to a sense of insecurity around straight, cisgender masculinity?
Honestly, no one has done quite the awesome and easily accessible job of this with poetry that Bruce Springsteen was doing. Listen to “Darkness on the Edge of Town” and “The River” and “Nebraska.” There isn’t a single book of poetry that as many people are going to get as much out of in terms of understanding the marginal Trump voter in the Rust Belt. Partly because there are so many more people who have grown up understanding how pop music works.
But what kinds of poets are doing that kind of work, or similar work? There are a lot.
I really like Bruce Smith. He’s been writing for — I think there are like 30 or 40 years of books. He’s a little older than me. And his most recent books are not the most accessible books, but they’re the best books. In his last few books, his great subjects have included: What happens to Rust Belt masculinity? What happens to Southern masculinity? What happens to the idea of a working class? He’s also thinking about black and white race relations from a white perspective in a way that’s quite intelligent. Why do people who are like him become who they are?
He’s certainly not a Trump voter, but some of the feelings that led people who had real concerns to choose Trump are in Bruce Smith’s poetry.
A poet who is certainly writing about nostalgia and decline and the heartland, who some of my friends really like, who I think is good but honestly not great — but a poet who is really accessible who’s writing about these places — is a poet called B.H. Fairchild. If you want to read someone who’s very thoughtful but who’s very easy to get into, that’s a place to start.
But — as important as I think it is to understand the marginal Trump voter, the sort of Rust Belt lunch-pail dude who feels like his union has failed him — that’s really only 10 percent or 20 percent of America. And there are so many different kinds of voices, and so many different kinds of experiences that are represented by American poetry now.
The past few years have seen a real shift in what the institutions of American poetry hold up as exemplary and worthy of prizes — a shift toward representing more real lives, and more kinds of real lives. That means more attention to people who are not white, and more attention to people who are not white and not black.
It also means a shift toward more subjects, more lives, greater emotional palettes — a shift away from a kind of poetry that resembled gallery art. And there’s nothing wrong with gallery art! Some of the poets that I admire still are quite abstract.
But American poetry now, and what gets held up for prizes, is much easier to get into than was the American poetry that was held up and rewarded 10 years ago.
GUO: As someone on the far, far, fringes — who’s a poetry simpleton — that’s something that even I have noticed. It’s wonderful, too, because there’s now more surface area for someone like me to engage with some of these works. But this is kind of why I asked that question about Trumpland. Because if we think that part of poetry’s job is to represent people, or identities, or personas — are there people that are being left out?
BURT: There are 320 million people in America, and they’re all slightly different. I don’t know if the demographics that produced Trump voters are left out.
There’s a particularly good first book [of poems] that was about rural American decline. It’s a book called “Almanac” by Austin Smith. Again it’s very accessible. It’s about the challenges of being from the farm and not knowing where you’re going to go. That’s a first book I’d also recommend if you want to read well-made and clear recent poetry about the demographics that are reliably Republican now.
There are a lot of rural Americans who grow up to write poetry, and some of that poetry is quite good. I don’t think Trump voters are unrepresented, because so many people who end up publishing books poetry come from those places.
Here’s a contribution that reading a lot of poetry can make to understanding what’s going on now that pop music can’t make, that the people who do the electoral college breakdowns can’t make: Good poems do a lot of things at once. Often, by doing so, they encourage us to acknowledge mixed and incompatible feelings.
Good poems, like good works of history, resist monocausal explanations for anything. There’s not one reason why I am angry or excited or hopeful, when I feel those things. And there’s not one reason why President Obama won two elections. And there’s not one reason why Donald Trump won the most recent presidential election.
Durable, memorable poetry is usually alert to complexity. A really good poem gives you a reason to read it 20 times, because the language in a good poem is doing a lot of work emotionally and a lot of work intellectually. That means durable poetry can help us think about complexity, can help us resist easy answers and help us step back. And it can help us sometimes calm down, and sometimes it can help us stay upset.
GUO: To circle back to the book that you’ve written and all the poems you’ve assembled — I think that when you undertake a project like this, you can’t help but develop your own vision of America, right? What did you see?
BURT: My book begins with a poem by John Ashbery, “Paradoxes and Oxymorons,” whose vision of intimacy and complexity — “And the poem / Has set me softly down beside you. The poem is you” — resembles Whitman’s vision of uniquely American intimacy.
If you want a short list of poets who are speaking to issues and problems and emotional crises that many Americans wake up and have to think about, Terrance Hayes and Laura Kasischke are two people who you can start with.
Kasischke has three great subjects. The first two were: the challenges and excitements and fears that are specific to teenage girls, and the challenges and excitements and fears that are specific to motherhood. She’s since written about the challenges and fears and metaphysical questions that come out of thinking about life-threatening illness — her own and her parents’.
I wouldn’t care about how she approaches these topics if she didn’t have an amazing ear and an amazing sense of how to construct a sentence, just as no one would care about Bruce Springsteen’s versions of the Rust Belt if he didn’t have a terrific voice and a sense of melody.
Terrance Hayes can be very challenging. He likes word games, he likes math games. He is very alert to the complexities of experience. He never denies any part of who he is demographically or historically. He’s very much against oversimplification. His subjects really do include large social challenges and large economic challenges that a lot of people face.
He writes about the way that white America and American institutions tell black men, “You have to be this and you can’t be that.” He writes about the challenge of mass incarceration, especially in his new book “How to Be Drawn.” There are poems about his own youth — his mom was a prison guard and his dad’s career military. He writes from a lot of perspectives at once — as any first-rate literature includes multiple perspectives.
Elizabeth Alexander has a poem [in the book] about her relative who moved to Oregon and passed for white, a poem that begins and ends — “a poem tells a story, a story about race.” That is also telling a story about America: America as an opportunity for self-reinvention, and an opportunity for self-deception; America as an opportunity for people to become ourselves, in ways that look like betrayal to some and self-realization to others.
It’s not just a poem about one guy who moved to Oregon. It’s also a poem also about his East Coast family that stayed black. It’s also poem that goes very much out of its way, as all of Alexander’s best poems go out of their way, to be accessible. To be a poem you can really read if you like reading, even if you don’t read poems.
GUO: I’m thinking about inauguration poems. It’s so interesting that we still do this, that people still feel like, in an important moment — not just for one person, but for the presidency, for the nation — we should have some kind of poem! I just think it’s fascinating that this is still a habit of our nation. I don’t know if Donald Trump would be interested in continuing the tradition, but who do you think could speak at his inauguration?
BURT: Commissioned inaugural poems haven’t actually been very durable or very good compared to the best poems by those same poets. But it does no harm to have poetry on ceremonial occasions. There is something stately and authorizing about some kinds of poetry, and, so, why not?
Now the guy who’s coming in is uniquely hostile to coherent thought.
I actually fully support people like Bill Gates saying flattering things about Trump, because whether Baltimore or San Diego are underwater in 30 years may have a lot to do with what this administration does on climate, which has to do with the who the president listens to. So if you can have some influence on climate policy, I don’t mind people trying to play nice with him. I hope it works, because I don’t want San Diego to be underwater.
In the arts, on the other hand, in places where you’re not going to save lives or save species, I think there’s no reason to play ball. I can’t imagine a serious poet who would want to write or perform for this inauguration. I’d be very surprised if there were an inaugural poem, and I can’t really imagine what that would be.
4. A new poem
Burt, who sometimes goes by Stephen and sometimes by Stephanie, has published several volumes of his own poetry. He has said that he wants his work to champion “the femme, the elaborate, the playful, the serifed, the feathered, the self-consciously involute, the magenta and the chartreuse, even the ornamental: ruffles, dessert.” But the election changed his mind about a lot of things. The following poem, which hasn’t been published before, was written recently.
Sea ponders and then
pillages the land
Tonight the supermoon
no bigger than a regular full moon really
not to be looked at directly
a lidless eye
I used to think
that all of us followed the furrows
of the same plow
but then the rains
and then no rain
the millipedes scuffle and scuttle in
the fading gutter-pan and tire track
the reaped field is an altar
Two magenta—no, two hot pink child-sized gloves
abandoned in a host of fallen leaves
by a chain link fence
What is natural
Indoors the pet cat rummaging
making the laundry pile his ship’s
galley his miniature ocean
knows something he does not know he knows
the fate of civilizations
fresh sandbox sand in the dewclaw
or where the time goes
There is no machine
it’s the scene in Disgrace
where David decides to put the animal down
not because “his time
has come” but because everyone’s
time comes and no one else will feed him now
So say a tight-lipped prayer
to the goddess of second chances
wherever she goes
When our cat leaves this world it’s not normal
the only pain is variable pain
if he’d rather remain
There is no rule of law
except for what you imagine
which other people may then proceed to ignore
civilization’s a split wind a confidence game
put your lips next to a dead leaf and blow it away
while saying you hope
it will be there the following day