Is Poetry Still Possible in Politics?

Looking back on one year since “Birdie Sanders.”

One year ago today, Bernie Sanders stood on a podium in the middle of a Portland arena in front a few thousand bright-eyed progressives. As he delivered his stump speech, then well-rehearsed after months on the campaign trail in the Democratic primary, a little bird landed on the dais. It was a brown house finch, a species native to western North America. Known for its gregarious nature and song, the bird’s chirp caught more of the crowd’s attention and eventually, Bernie, distracted by the growing chatter, spotted the bird and paused. After a moment, he waved his arm.

“Now this little bird-,” he began and stopped. Before he could really wax poetic, the symbolism of the moment took flight, as the bird fluttered into the air and, as the crowd roared with awe, landed gently on the edge of Bernie’s podium. The 75 year-old rumpled idealist laughed, then stared and shook his head. The moment was brief; the crowd cheered again as the little finch flew off to the rafters.

What followed, when footage of the incident hit the Internet, was the meme-ification of “Birdie Sanders.” Rather than the usual sardonic commentary marking the online re-creation of the incident, the viral phenomenon of “Birdie Sanders” was notably marked by a kind of mix of humor and innocence with joy. It threw the dark cynicism of the Republican and Democratic primaries into relief, and spoke to a hope that maybe our politics could still be touched by something bigger than us, bigger than a mechanistic, routine consignment to outdated principles- something like chance, or fate. Or maybe just meaning.

Watching the video a year later, less than 100 days into the morose fog of death and disassociation that mark the Trump presidency, I am shocked into the alternate universe of the past. It’s like the sudden recall of the death of a loved one. Bernie Sanders was never a perfect progressive candidate. But remember what it felt like to believe he had a chance? The grinding halt of the grassroots, democratic energy of his campaign (which was that election’s only poetry) by the elevation of Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee left an entire generation feeling like they were without an option. After the selection of Donald Trump through the absurd process of the Electoral College, that abandonment came to feel like despondency.

Where does poetry go when falsehoods reign in our political life? (The falsehoods of stolen victories, of the necessity for walls, and deportation, and militarism, of climate denial, and treasonous collusion.) Poetry is something that we so often are afraid to admit we need (metaphor, simile, a playfulness of language and symbolism) but when suddenly it’s ripped from us, we become conscious to our own starvation for it.

In a democracy, yes, facts are important. But progressives are awakening to this now- that screaming at a treasonous, murderous governing oligarchy to “look at the facts” won’t liberate us. Without narrative, or a commitment to the subjective, we awaken to the rude reality that facts are also a construction and a kind of metaphor- what they may lend to us in seriousness or objectivity, they lack in inspiration. In other words, “facts” are merely data- but story is human.

The visual power and poetry of “Birdie Sanders” was that it symbolized democratic energy or a democratic spirit- and re-awakened a desire for our civic lives to be imbued with innocence, meaning, and purpose.

Poetry is a commitment to playful construction- an embrace of the decorative, artful nature of both verbal and visual language. The best poetry balances a commitment to the aesthetic with a constant awareness of the deadly material implications of our language- and it lingers there, wavering between the two.

In this way, poetry, as an act of interpretation and creation, is a fundamentally democratic discourse. It undermines the coordination and consolidation of a violent power that wants to disembody language, and hoard its uses for itself.

Today I am reminding myself: in the midst of our current struggle, this arid and violent national discourse where hateful rhetoric is validated and language that wants to accommodate and sustain is mocked and infantilized, poetry has not vanished.

It is only suddenly different in its stakes, and its scale.

It requires, more than ever, a blasting open of our notions of whose poetry is welcome in the democratic space, and what or whom, exactly, that democratic space is for.

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