Ezra Pound once defined poetry as news that stays news. As someone who spent most of his professional career in the trenches of daily newspaper journalism, I’ve long harbored an awareness of the many vital life encounters that don’t make headlines but do become the grist of a poet’s focus and our personal spheres. Think of nature and love, for starters.
Of course, sometimes public events spur literary reaction – and not just the odes that fill so much of the poetic duty of earlier eras. American poets notably rallied against the Vietnam war, while more recently, veterans have turned to reflections of their own encounters.
I’ve already posted about my growing frustration in maintaining a critical, objective distance from the political rhetoric, especially in my final decades in the news trade. Our job was to report the truth, but what we were offering was rife with official falsehoods, even propaganda, as newly surfacing documents are confirming. (The arguments for launching the second Iraq war, especially, fit here.) To keep my own sanity through that period, in my personal, private time I drafted much of what’s appearing this year in the Red Barn but refrained from circulating those poems and related notes because doing so would have violated my public stance of neutrality. Professionally, I can listen to all sides impartially and edit without bias, but individually, I still have a moral compass and passions. (Thank God.) Let’s just say it made for some ongoing tensions.
In the past year, as I looked ahead to a presidential campaign cycle that would unfold for the first time in my retirement, what appeared promised me a transition from impassive witness to long-buried social activist, which had been an element of my hippie past. I could feel some psychic healing in the process.
Back when I started planning this year’s American political focus for the Red Barn, my initial desire was to explain New Hampshire’s unique role in the two-party presidential season. At the time, I had every reason to anticipate a kind of parallel set of historic events that would play off my first-hand observations, especially since everyone knew this round would be another Bush (Jeb!) lined up against another Clinton (Hillary) in the final run for the White House. (Talk about deja vu!) With one of the premises of the Red Barn holding that you never know what you’ll turn up rummaging in the loft and rafters, I resolved to go ahead and schedule that line of poetry/rants, mostly drawn from the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld era, and see how they’d measure up against today’s developments. Boy, have I been in for a surprise! While topical poems, contrary to Pound’s dictum, run a danger of becoming dated, these, I’d say, are remaining news, especially as Bernie Sanders has picked up on my Woodpecker’s theme. Where did Bernie pop up from, anyway?
Which takes us back to this year’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary. We in New Hampshire could see trouble brewing. On the Democratic side, we had a traditional face-to-face season of meeting the candidates and weighing their virtues, and somehow Bernie started connecting with voters in ways Hillary’s more measured, above-the-fray approach wasn’t doing. So it wound up becoming a two-candidate race rather than a parade to an inevitable nomination. The GOP side, in contrast, had surprisingly little of the meet-and-greet action. The organizations seemed to think they could do it all by direct mail and robocalls, or so it felt. New Hampshire Republicans for the most part simply didn’t cozy up to any of the hopefuls they met and heard. Chris Christie could give a spellbinding speech, but nobody bought into his pitch. John Kasich caught on to the state’s door-to-door approach late in the schedule and did gain some traction, just not enough. The expensive super-PAC daily mailings supporting Jeb(!), Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio apparently backfired, as I’ve related. As for Donald Trump, his human interactions were awkward at best, so it was packaged rallies rather than town meetings for him. And for the rest of the posse? Barely a trace.
Quite simply, on the Republican side we had a breakdown. New Hampshire wasn’t the usual testing ground. And where it performed as it should have, we could see the conventional hopefuls simply didn’t measure up. Period. Enter the bombastic, mercurial Mr. Trump into the void.
New Hampshire and the caucuses in Iowa don’t have to be the determining mechanisms in the presidential campaign cycle. They can winnow the field and spotlight points where a candidate might refocus a message, but there is a long way to go to the conventions. If anything, the 12 largest states down the pike need to step up their own independence as safeguards that can change the direction, if necessary. This year’s Republican free fall, though, failed to generate a viable alternative for the party, either the faithful or its leaders. Frankly, I didn’t expect it to implode as quickly as it has.
So much for my argument that the big states later in the presidential campaign season could offer a corrective ballast. So much for the resurrection of favorite-son strategies. As for the Republican Party splitting? Listen to the avowed conservatives wailing about Trump’s lack of shared values or litmus-test faithfulness. Watch some of the others scurry for cover and prime position under the Trump umbrella, eschewing everything they’ve proclaimed about the importance of character or values or Christian integrity. This is unlike anything we’ve seen since, well, Lincoln? Is it fair to compare positions and conclude that conservative banner carrier Ronald Reagan would have been far too middle-of-the-road for this crowd?
So now, with the withdrawal of the unlikable Cruz and the pragmatic conservative Kasich in the aftermath of Tuesday’s voting in Indiana, we’re left with Trump, whose statements run far into the realm of fantasy and wishful thinking. In the rubble, he’s been dubbed the presumptive nominee. Or is that the dystopia nominee, promising to dismantle American government? This is scary and unprecedented. His claim to make the country great again would be hysterically comical if some fools weren’t taking it so seriously.
So where do we turn for the appropriate poems? Allen Ginsberg comes to mind, along with Robert Bly. Another favorite is Gary Snyder’s “Smokey the Bear Sutra.” For the Lincoln-era perspective, John Greenleaf Whittier can be quite biting. We could leap all the way back to Greek tragedy, I suppose, or mine the works of Shakespeare. (I’ll accept their drama under the heading of poetry.) From the Bible I’d start with Isaiah, Daniel, and Revelation.
History provides some perspective, especially as we consider the consequences of decisions and actions. Who would you suggest for our list?
Meanwhile, Woodpecker will keep drilling away. He can be quite determined when it comes to uprooting worms in the woodwork.