Trump Poetry

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Just like in Ireland and Russia, a new kind of poetry will rise in the age of Trump.

A recent essay by Stephen Burt in the Boston Review argues for the relevance of the Irish modernist poet, W.B. Yeats, in the time of Trump. Yeats, Burt says, was a political conservative, and a poet who praised institutions as much as he derided them. Poetry and political resistance, it seems, can often be an uncomfortable combination.

But Burt’s article also reminded me, inadvertently, of a stanza from W.H. Auden’s “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” which Auden wrote for Yeats when he died in 1939:

You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
W.B. Yeats in 1932

Reflecting on the turmoil of 1930s Ireland, Auden’s poem is an elegy — a commemorative piece of writing — for the dead Irishman. Auden’s line, “Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry,” addresses Yeats’s patriotism as both creatively productive while simultaneously self-destructive; a line that has been resonating with me deeply for the last few weeks. Yeats and Auden are proof that poets, more than other fiction writers, need political resistance — as well as a modicum of social responsibility — in order to make sense of the world and their place within it.

With the election of President Trump, I believe that Auden’s poem has never been more relevant. Keep in mind, “executives,” like Trump, don’t care about writing — poetry rests on the outskirts of any kind of serious profitability. Auden’s speaker knows this: poetry is a thing that “makes nothing happen,” but at the same time it “survives” precisely because it is on the outskirts, it is an outlier, “A way of happening, a mouth.” And for the next four years, executives like Trump will make poetry happen, whether they want to or not.

Yeats’s relationship with Ireland reminds me of another culture that has bred almost a century of resistance poetry: Russia. In the ’70s and ’80s, the USSR persecuted the writers that spoke out against the government. Poetry was almost inherently a poetry of resistance: held up by writers like Joseph Brodsky, Anna Akhmatova, and Osip Mandelshtam, it was a way to make sense and fight back against a regime that took away basic human rights and liberties.

Joseph Brodsky teaching at the University of Michigan

Joseph Brodsky, persecuted for his writing and expelled from the Soviet Union in 1972, is a poet who ‘made something happen.’ With the help of W.H. Auden, he moved to Ann Arbor, where he taught at the University of Michigan and continued writing anti-Soviet work. Some of his strongest poems, however, like the poem “End of a Beautiful Era”, were written in Russia, under the threat of persecution and imprisonment.

Akhmatova, too, was not silent in the face of oppression. Affected by the Stalinist terrors, she wrote one of her most famous cycles of poetry, Requiem, during the “seventeen months waiting in prison queues in Leningrad.” In those years, many women waited outside of the prisons in order to see their sons and husbands, who were imprisoned there. Unlike Brodsky, she never considered leaving the country.

Mandelshtam and Akhmatova

Of the three, Mandelshtam was the loudest and therefore the one that suffered the most. An authour of the “Stalin Epigram,” — a satirical poem of the Joseph Stalin — Mandelshtam didn’t survive the thirties. Arrested, imprisoned, and sent to a Siberian gulag in 1938, he died in transit to the camp. His legacy remains as one of the most well known dissident writers of his generation.

From Yeats to Mandelshtam, poetry was not a way to hide behind the walls of the imagination. The 20th Century tumult of Ireland and Russia show us that these writers used their voices to resist, to fight, and to leave a lasting legacy of the struggles that they endured.

In the aftermath of the 2016 elections, poetry went “viral” on the Internet, at least according to The Atlantic. While we can all agree that poetry should provide comfort in hard times, I encourage everyone to think about the ways that poetry can resist the likes of Trump and his Administration. By providing a way empathize with the perspectives of those who suffer, by being a “voice” against abusive institutions, poetry can fight back against oppression.

After all, there is beauty in resistance.