Words for solace and strength: poems to counter the election fallout and beyond

What poets can help us get through a Trump administration? Here are five that serve as signals that good exists, and that someone is awake and listening

Audre Lorde once wrote that poetry is not a luxury, and right now it is a necessity. What kind of poetry can get us through a Donald Trump presidency? Well need satire and spitting vitriol. Well need rallying cries. Well need reminders of human dignity.

Each poet here has struggled with the relationship between poetry and action, with the question of poetrys relevance in a time of crisis. Adrienne Rich said: A poem cant free us from the struggle for existence, but it can uncover desires and appetites buried under the accumulating emergencies of life. These are words carefully chosen not for solace but for strength, poems that dip into the reservoirs of literature to find fuel for the day ahead. They are, to borrow from WH Audens famous poem September 1, 1939, ironic points of light that flash out wherever the Just / exchange their messages. Poems that serve as signals through the ages that good exists, and that someone is awake and listening.

Gwendolyn Brooks Langston Hughes

Gwendolyn
Gwendolyn Brooks. Photograph: AP

Gwendolyn Brooks brief poems are like talismans to carry close to your skin for protection and comfort. I discovered this poem last summer after watching police and protesters clashing in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and videos of police shootings played on repeat. Against horrific violence and discrimination in another era, Langston Hughes offered Brooks a helmsman, hatchet, headlight. In her characteristic condensed brilliance, Brooks pays tribute to a guide who was both a fighter and who danced. Yesterday, I thought of her the same way, in our need for emotion and action, remedial fears and muscular tears.

Langston Hughes

is merry glory

Is saltatory.

Yet grips his right of twisting free.

Has a long reach,

Strong speech,

Remedial fears,

Muscular tears.

Holds horticulture

In the eye of the vulture

Infirm profession.

In the Compression

In mud and blood and sudden death

In the breath

Of the holocaust he

Is helmsman, hatchet, headlight.

See

One restless in the exotic time! and ever,

Till the air is cured of its fever.

Adrienne Rich What Kind of Times Are These

Adrienne Rich devoted her lifes work to investigating the relationship between poetry and politics. Here she cites Berthold Brechts line What kind of times are these, when to speak of trees is almost a crime, for it is a kind of silence about so many horrors! The bald hue and cry of Brechts politics is unfashionable now as it was when Rich wrote this poem in the 1990s. Rich knows this, and issues instead a disquieting warning. Claudia Rankine wrote recently of Rich in the New Yorker that her poems are a chronicle of what it means to risk the self in order to give the self. Here she is offering to lead us in that endeavor.

What Kind of Times Are These

Theres a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill

and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows

near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted

who disappeared into those shadows.

Ive walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but dont be fooled

this isnt a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,

our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,

its own ways of making people disappear.

I wont tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods

meeting the unmarked strip of light

ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:

I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.

And I wont tell you where it is, so why do I tell you

anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these

to have you listen at all, its necessary

to talk about trees.

Nayyirah Waheed Some words build houses in your throat

Yesterday, Nayyirah Waheed tweeted a poem that spoke to a mood of alert exhaustion: the bright tired. the wise tired. the tired that always comes before. a universal shift the kind of tired that is alive. Waheeds poems move in fragments; her book, salt,is a collection of thoughts that build to a quiet crescendo against all the forces of racism, misogyny and xenophobia that were at work in this election. The droplet lines call out to care for what is most imperiled, and how words can keep us going.

Some words build houses in your throat

some words build houses in your throat. and

they live there. content and on fire.

Heres another of Waheeds poems, which she posted on November 9:

Margaret Atwood Men with the Heads of Eagles

Margaret
Margaret Atwood. Photograph: Amit Lennon for the Guardian

Against the boorishness of Trump, we women need Margaret Atwoods wry feminist humor, here taking up the story of Circe, the sorceress who turned Odysseus men into pigs. With a magic, self-sufficient eye, Atwood looks straight through the type of man that is common as flies, sees their hubris melt, come apart, fall into the ocean. Not all men there are the ones left over / the ones who have escaped from these mythologies barely with their lives.

Men with the heads of eagles

no longer interest me

or pig-men, or those who can fly

with the aid of wax and feathers

or those who take off their clothes

to reveal other clothes

or those with skins of blue leather

or those golden and flat as a coat of arms

or those with claws, the stuffed ones

with glass eyes; or those

hirerarchic as greaves and steam-engines.

All these I could create, manufacture,

or find easily: they swoop and thunder

around this island, common as flies,

sparks flashing, bumping into each other,

on hot days you can watch them

as they melt, come part,

fall into the ocean

like sick gulls, dethronements, plane crashes.

I search instead for the others,

the ones left over,

the ones who have escaped from these

mythologies with barely their lives;

they have real faces and hands, they think

of themselves as

wrong somehow, they would rather be trees.

Muriel Rukeyser Poem

Muriel Rukeyser was not subtle but torrid in her political energy; she saw American poetry as part of a culture in conflict. This poem, from 1968, seems eerily prescient of our contemporary networked lives, with its use of the word devices and in its description of information overload. And yet she gets down to work, tries by any means / to reach the limits of ourselves / to reach beyond ourselves. Rukeyser is not sanguine about the triumph of these efforts; she brackets the poem with I lived in the first century of these wars, implying it will not be the last such century. I love this poems plainness, its matter-of-fact tone despite its underlying sadness, and its dialectic between the work of day and the relief of night, sleep, empathy and comfort, and the short exhortation to wake again.

Poem

I lived in the first century of world wars.

Most mornings I would be more or less insane,

The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,

The news would pour out of various devices

Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.

I would call my friends on other devices;

They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.

Slowly I would get to pen and paper,

Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.

In the day I would be reminded of those men and women,

Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,

Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values.

As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,

We would try to imagine them, try to find each other,

To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile

Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,

Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means

To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,

To let go the means, to wake.

I lived in the first century of these wars.

Have you been reading poetry to find comfort in these extraordinary times, whether to find comfort or to propel you to action? Tell us in the comments.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/nov/10/poetry-trump-presidency-gwendolyn-brooks-margaret-atwood

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