American poetry and political defeat
by Michael Ruby
I was born a believer in peace. I say fight for the right.
Be a martyr and live. Be a coward and die.
— Susan B. Anthony speaking
in Gertrude Stein’s
“The Mother of Us All”
IN THE first election year that mattered to me, 1968, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, my country killed hundreds of thousands of people in Southeast Asia, and Richard Nixon was elected president. In the decades that followed, I have always been unhappy with the leadership and direction of this country, usually very unhappy. I codified this in a tongue-in-cheek way in the title “We’re the Losing Team in America” in my ebook Titles & First Lines. No doubt my experience colored the political poems that affected me when I studied American poetry in college and graduate school. When I read those poems again now, I can’t help feeling that American political poetry is about defeat, a long string of defeats. The poets’ visions of American society and its possibilities have never come to pass, far from it. In the past sixty years, aside from everything else, we are all drenched with the blood of millions of people in Southeast Asia and the Middle East through our taxpayer-funded wars. American political poems offer a range of responses to such defeats and unexpiated crimes, from deathly acceptance to straight talk to psychopathology.
In one of the most popular American poems, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” Walt Whitman responds to one of the worst political defeats, the assassination of Lincoln, which opened the way for the racist Andrew Johnson and the failure of Reconstruction. A century later, assassinations opened the way for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. In the elegy written soon after the end of the Civil War and the assassination in 1865, and thus before the political implications were clear, Lincoln’s death is subsumed in the lilacs and “the great star early droop’d in the western sky” — the same planet seen during the coronavirus spring of death in New York. And most of all, in the hermit thrush “in the swamp in secluded recesses.” “You grey-brown bird” is Whitman’s Homeric epithet, reminiscent of the “grey-eyed goddess” who preserves Odysseus. Lincoln’s death becomes part of something larger, something beautiful, a whole. Eventually, the thrush’s song leads to what Whitman describes as an “echo arous’d in my soul,” which takes the form of an italicized hymn to death, beginning “Come lovely and soothing death,” that concludes the long fourteenth section of poem. Whitman then has “panoramas of visions” of “battle-corpses, myriads of them,” and a realization about what it means to be dead: “They themselves were fully at rest, they suffer’d not, / The living remain’d and suffer’d.” Lincoln’s death is part of a beautiful whole that makes death itself desirable.
In “Impromptu: The Suckers,” written in 1927 but not published until 1941 for unknown reasons, William Carlos Williams responds to the execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti by telling his fellow Americans: “You are the suckers,” “Your pleas will always be denied,” all you can do is “take it out” in booze and sex. His repeated line is a form of “It is this that is intended.” This is what the system wants them to do. The doctor’s diagnosis of the cause of defeat: they have been bought off. “You got the cash, what the hell do you care?” He identifies the winners as “the / New England aristocracy, bent on working off / a grudge against you, Americans, you” — the very same winners, along with Wall Street “plutocrats,” in Vachel Lindsay’s underrated long poem about the 1896 election, “Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan,” which was published in 1919. Williams tries to end his poem on a positive note, but then trails off into “No one / can understand what makes the present age / what it is.” Still, in a poem that feels like it spilled out of him “impromptu”— not quite in lines, more prose or performance piece than poetry — the response to defeat is brutal honesty.
Robert Lowell’s sonnet “Inauguration Day: January 1953,” which is much more obscure than I remember, ends on a very clear note that I’ve always enjoyed quoting in a lifetime of opposition to the size of the US military: “and the Republic summons Ike, / the mausoleum in her heart.” Lowell’s response to defeat is the esthete’s: putting down the victors’ taste, their emotions. He seems to say, “We lost, but we’re superior.” Lowell’s actual image is echoed some years later by Allen Ginsberg in the line “Eisenhower winging in from his American graveyard” in his poem “At Apollinaire’s Grave,” but the feeling there is more … grave.
Immediately after the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960, Charles Olson wrote two poems with the same title, “The Hustings,” which sat in a pile of papers in his Gloucester house and were published posthumously twenty-seven years later. The first poem, in the order they appear in his Collected Poems, is one of Olson’s more LANGUAGE-y pieces. The second is much more accessible, “a poem written to Leroi Jones” that begins with the wonderful, uncapitalized line “the future sucks” and says that Olson too “spits out the Nation / for its lies.” His response to defeat is an emphatic “I stay at home” in his neighborhood in Gloucester, a statement that can be interpreted in a number of ways — from immersing oneself in the local to just giving up. He describes how people make fun of his clothes, how his wife won’t kiss him. He’s dubious of the possibility of improvement in the people around him or the countries of the world. He ends by bidding his fellow poet to join him in Gloucester: “All is here.”
In “The Presentation of Fruitstands in January” written on Reagan’s first inauguration, Bernadette Mayer, like Whitman and Olson, makes defeat part of the world around her, part of her life, there with the East Village streets and fruitstands and a painful love. Her opening line, “so-called inauguration 1981,” offhand and also uncapitalized, nicely signals her contempt for the event. As the poem spills out uncertainly and then settles into loving descriptions of fruitstands, it doesn’t refer to the inauguration again until the third page. That’s when Mayer starts the poem over with a fuller, more “poetic” line and a statement of her intentions: “On this inauguration day of the most hateful ideals / I like to think nostalgically of fruits and vegetables.” After that, the pain of the historical moment gradually morphs into the pain of love. The response to political defeat seems to be a combination of repression and a celebration of the local, especially its food, an epicurean escape that might not be so far away from Williams’ “Take it out in vile whisky, take it out / in lifting your skirts.” Though her word “nostalgically” suggests that even fruits and vegetables won’t survive the “hateful ideals,” a thought that has turned out to be visionary.
Ginsberg had something very different to say after Reagan’s election in “Capitol Air,” the last poem in his book Plutonian Ode and in his book Collected Poems, 1947–1980. Written in doggerel — and surprisingly set to music — it begins as so many American political poems might: “I don’t like the government where I live.” He doesn’t like any other place either. He is very direct, specific, from “I don’t like the C.I.A. they killed John Kennedy” to “I don’t like the Maoists’ Cambodian Death Dance.” Written during the 1979–81 “hostage crisis,” there’s plenty about Iran. Near the end, he writes: “The moral of this song is that the world is in a horrible place.” Then he ends with “Armed with Humor Feed & Help Enlighten Woe Mankind,” going full eighteenth century with his capitalizations. The weight of defeat on a poet leads to some strange places.
With his response to 9/11, “Somebody Blew Up America,” Amiri Baraka takes the prize for best title of a political poem. I remember a feeling of exhilaration the first time I saw it. I thought it must be a be victory dance in response to the Empire getting a black eye, and I think most people took it that way, and that was one reason it became “controversial.” But it isn’t that at all. The poem begins with “They say it’s some terrorist” and soon responds with “They say (who say?) / Who do the saying.” He soon answers his question with “Who got fat from plantations / Who genocided Indians / Tried to waste the Black nation.” The line “Who? Who? Who?” rings through the rest of the poem. His response to the simplistic view that something bad happened to America is this: A lot of bad things have happened to America, or as a result of America, for centuries. In this case, the poet might have taken a rare victory lap, but he turned it into an accounting of all the crimes. The bigger controversy around the poem centered on a few anti-Semitic lines: “Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers / To stay home that day / Why did Sharon stay away?” A long string of defeats, a lifetime of defeats, can poison a poet, and many other people.
It takes us back a century to another political poem by an American poet that is much more marred by anti-Semitism, “Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar.” In war criminal fashion, T. S. Eliot makes Jews the answer to the question he poses at the climax of the poem before it tails off: “Who clipped the lion’s wings / And flea’d his rump and pared his claws?” In short, who weakened Venice and England? The question “Who?” rings out in this poem as in Baraka’s. There’s always a need to identify the culprits, and sometimes the wrong people are blamed. Not just defeat, but hate-filled delusions of defeat, can poison a poet.
These poems up to 9/11 bring us almost to the present, when there’s always some possibility of a better history, instead of more defeats and crimes. A lifetime of political defeats is hard to live with, and these poems show us some of the different ways American poets have lived with them.