Writing poems about presidential elections

by Michael Ruby

In the newsroom, Inauguration Day 2017
In the newsroom, Inauguration Day 2017

Many American poets have written poems about presidential elections, and many are likely to write about this 2020 election, which was frightening. For years, I have written poems about elections, some of which can be found in my recently published book, The Star-Spangled Banner, including the 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016 elections. I took somewhat different approaches in these poems, which are linked here to recordings on PennSound.

After the devastating defeat of 2004, the reelection of George W. Bush, I wrote “The Triumph of the Red States in 2004,” satirizing in the title the kind of history painting that people can’t relate to anymore. In the poem, the names of all fifty states appear once, and then the names of the thirty-one red states appear a second time. The last line is:

And Kentucky the Kansas home Nevada of Tennessee the Louisiana brave Florida

Those states won. They got to go twice. They got two scoops of ice cream instead of one. It’s almost an objective view. But their “triumph” would eventually be as meaningless as the victories celebrated in centuries of bad history paintings — unless you happened to be one of the millions of people who died in the Middle East as a result. I see now that I was trying to distance myself from one of the most bitter disappointments in my life — the country’s failure to repudiate the fraudulent Iraq War — through satire and objectivity.

In 2008, in the poem “From a Red 2008 Standard Diary,” I drew on a diary entry from Election Day, a purely personal view, the election as one individual experienced it. What a joy I felt walking past Brooklyn’s borough president at the polls at John Jay High School:

At On the way to the polls with Louisa & Charlotte the at 10:40, I mortify Louisa. twilight’s
     I tap Brooklyn Borough President last Marty Markowitz on the arm and say Praise
     God!” gleaming Marty Markowitz shrugs.
Whose “You are insane,” Louisa says.

And then, a purely personal view of working Election Night at a newspaper:

O’er I pigged out on ribs, pulled pork, chicken, cornbread. the I was assigned the Bizreact
     story. land I couldn’t enjoy the election night rhythm, of the calling of Pennsylvania,
     then Ohio! the I didn’t look up from my story till Obama spoke. free I couldn’t even call
     Gurien at Fox in Oakland.
And At 1, I walked out with Josh. the He said he never thought he’d see the end of them.
     home We took a cab together to Brooklyn.

2012 was something else. That’s the one election when I wrote a number of poems. It seemed so important to me. It seemed like it would determine the future of the country, whether it would move forward or backward. The first poem, “O the fear…,” is monochromatic, after a poor debate performance by Barack Obama:

O the fear say the fear can the fear you the fear see the fear
By the fear the the fear dawn’s the fear early the fear light the fear

The second poem, “O relief…,” is only slightly less monochromatic, after a poor debate performance by Mitt Romney and the arrival of Hurricane Sandy:

O relief say Romney’s Benghazi blunder can Hurricane Sandy you Romney’s Benghazi
     blunder see Hurricane Sandy
By Romney’s Benghazi blunder the relief dawn’s relief early Hurricane Sandy light relief

Who would have guessed this wasn’t the end of Benghazi? I know some of the people who had other ideas.

Then, on Election Day itself, I drew on a diary entry again for “From a Red 2012 Standard Diary”:

O Tuesday November 6 Election Day (US) say Awakened by Natalie can calling from
     Florida at 7:20. you Sunny and cold. see I feel no emotion
By about the election the as I drink coffee, exercycle dawn’s and read about it. early
     Emotionless. But confident. light I believe. I don’t know.
What I’ve enjoyed this, so it’s been a high point of my life. proudly I wish Mom lived to
     see this, we but she saw all victories, hailed she was an optimist.

Hard not to think of my mother, who had died of breast cancer earlier that year, whose New Deal liberal optimism outlived her. That confidence freed me to explore my nonrational verbal responses to the election in “O election…” on the subway ride to work in the afternoon:

O election say price can reason you escalate see dogshit
By leggings the pellet dawn’s holster early reassignment light hemisphere

At work, I spent the whole night updating the story about Senate races until 2:30 a.m., when the diary poem ends:

And Josh and I called cars, the smoked cigs on the street home and celebrated: of “The
     backlash failed. the They couldn’t complete brave the Reagan era.

That seemed like a no-brainer at the time, the final answer to the most important political question of my entire adulthood. But no, not in America. We hadn’t gotten there, not after thirty-plus years and the first Black president.

2016 was too important for a diary entry. This was Greek tragedy. It needed to begin in medias res, or even near the end of the thing, and include a chorus, the voices of many losers and a few winners. “Voices at the End of Election Night on November 9, 2016” begins:

O It’s the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen. say Hoping for a miracle, you know? Can
     James Comey was the difference. you They worked that email thing — and it worked.
     see The Clintons did a bad job defending themselves.
By Oh my God, AP called Pennsylvania! the Boy, what a flop, huh? What a choke. dawn’s
     This is a massive, incredible failure. early Getting hacked had a bit to do with it. light
     We’ve got Heineken, we’ve got Modelo …

This is how the poem ends:

And They’re saying Trump’s gonna speak soon. the OK, I gotta go. I just got to the end.
     home As Mike Pence comes on stage. of We’re such fucking losers. We need better
     players. the It’s time to call it quits brave and devote the rest of my life to poetry.

I didn’t follow my advice — and now it’s four years later. On Election Day, I wasn’t in a newsroom in Manhattan, surrounded by the voices of other editors. I didn’t have a smoke with Josh Rosenbaum outside on 6th Ave. at the end of the night. I was in my bedroom, working remotely, during the ninth month of the coronavirus pandemic, which is worsening every day now.

This year, our country came within one percentage point of accepting open fascism, one percentage point of death as a centuries-old society, one percentage point of keeping in power “the cult of suicidal white males who are destroying Earth,” to quote my cocurator Sam Truitt. The future remains bleak, but we didn’t die. We’re gonna live a few more years at least. We still have more chances before it’s too late.