Poetry and Agency Under Trump
April 5, 2017
Apr 5, 2017
17 Min read time
Poetry and activism share an uneasy relationship.
The weeks since Donald Trump’s inauguration have seen unprecedented mobilization in the form of marches, rallies, boycotts, and other challenges. For those who consider the administration’s policies and statements to be hateful and autocratic, it provides comfort to participate in acts of creativity, solidarity, and resistance that affirm agency and democratic values. At the same time, the fact that the levers of institutional power are so firmly held by the administration and its allies constantly raises the question of what kinds of actions can impact policy and society in a meaningful way. To be pointed: traditional progressive tactics and the Democratic Party’s agenda were not enough to prevent a Trump presidency, and the administration and its allies have often ignored and in many cases actively attacked protesters. As dissent spreads, is something different happening? Is this a moment where a progressive, popular voice is being developed or reclaimed, or will mobilization be limited to its expressive good alone?
For those who work in other forms of expression—writers and artists—the issue of expression’s political value is particularly acute. So is the question of what it will mean to produce significant culture in response to forces of misogyny, racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and brutality, and whether established artistic strategies are adequate or whether new ones are also necessary. For, if traditional progressive politics failed in the run-up to the election, it is also clear that substantive, meaningful, and engaged culture—art that can both explore difference and create community—was overwhelmed by the Internet’s capacity to distract us from reality, isolate us, and foment hate.
What does it mean to produce culture in response to forces of misogyny, racism, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism?
It is uncertain how art or artists will act in the short or longer term, but one form to watch is poetry, because poetry explores the nature of agency itself—what it means to summon the presence to act effectively and in relationship to others. Poems are intense, memorable, and require interpretation, in the same way that agency requires will, direction, and judgment. Poetry’s concern with voice draws attention to issues of speaker and audience, in the way that action, by definition, must occur alongside and along with others. And just as agency brings together intention and experience, poetry elevates language to draw attention to the experience of text, even as the reader simultaneously interprets ways that formal and linguistic choices demonstrate some intention.
Poetry’s response to changes in politics and culture is particularly undetermined because the experiences of agency modeled within individual poems can move in either direction—toward its assertion or toward its relinquishment. As a form with roots in magic and religion, poetry has always allowed expression of ecstatic forms of obedience. When Yeats writes about the dancer subsumed in dance, when Donne writes “imprison me, for I / Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,” their poems tell us that the only way to make sense of the gap between the world’s promise and fulfillment is a passionate recognition and acceptance of what we cannot change.
But poems can also provide a sense of what it means to act upon the world, with all the uncertainty that comes from not knowing the results of action. In referring to agency in poetry, I do not mean poems that overtly celebrate action or have happy endings. That would diminish the creative and political tasks ahead. I mean instead verse that gives a sense of what it feels like to act—to project the will and the self into the uncertain spheres that action entails, and eventually to assess its results.
Consider the last lines of Paradise Lost, which provide a sense of motion from Eden into the precariousness of human history. After Adam and Eve hear about the course of events since the Fall, they set out in a gesture of agency and consequence: “The World was all before them, where to choose / Their place of rest.” A collaborative force in the broader, post-Edenic world, they face it together, even as they make their “solitary way.”
A more contemporary and secular example of walking in solidarity and uncertainty comes from the opening of “Standing Strong” by Ed Roberson:
He wore the mismatched shoes he said in style
when one of your boys was gunned and it could
go either way and you wanted to say
you were with him step by step still tight.
Roberson’s poem describes the death of a student and the hope that the speaker might still be connected to his life, perhaps to prevent other unnecessary deaths: “you wanted to say / you were with him step by step still tight.” This act of solidarity shows us that speaking in “style” (poetry) can help inspire the deepest commitment. But it is significant that in Roberson’s poem, death was not in fact averted. Agency does not mean that we make the world exactly as we would have it. Poetry’s role is not just to inspire us to action, but to acknowledge that actions “could / go either way” and to learn from what happens.
These times make it particularly important to explore work of poets who spend significant portions of their time in activism and organizing because their vocations may help develop (but do not guarantee) work that attempts to bring a sense of agency to poetry. One such writer is Rodrigo Toscano, who lives in New Orleans, and is a national project director for the Labor Institute based in New York City. Toscano has written seven books, all explicitly political in different ways, from elaborating a revolutionary grammar (Partisans) to a stagecraft of interrogation (Collapsible Poetics Theater) to a reclamation of tabloid drama for genuinely populist purposes (Explosion Rocks Springfield).
Poetry explores the nature of agency itself.
Just as our actions are not always fulfilled—can “go either way”—it is important to recognize that there is no easy formula for meaningfully connecting verse and action. Blogging for the Poetry Foundation, Toscano, a participant in Occupy Wall Street, reflected on the uneasy relationship between activism and poetic practice:
When the climate of any society has shifted, virtually anything one says around issues of economic and cultural power gets charged in entirely new ways…..The entire field is altered. Virtually everything one writes takes on an aura of The Experimental™
This statement is clear enough, if ironized in the trademarking of the "experimental": a shift in society leads to new forms of expression, “entirely new ways” of speaking and doing. What follows in the essay is less clear:
I can’t stop thinking about (yes I can! I can stop right now) Jesus Christ as being one of a triplet set of siblings. The other two were not carpenter rebels; one was a brewer of locally renowned beers made of wild oats, the other was a Roman distributor of trash literature from Carthage to Antioch. The reunion of the three happened just three weeks before the execution of the eldest, Jesus. The now lost (but not forgotten) mosaic depicts three happy fools on a little boat, rocking it till it tips over. We assume it tipped over, given the depiction of the angle of the boat. The depiction of the angle—counts. Occupy Galilee? Boat check! Boat check!
Not only do these lines capsize the traditional essay, but by transforming Occupy’s “mic check” to “boat check,” Toscano questions any easy translation of revolutionary action into linguistic exploration. He both mocks the valorization of Occupy’s signature communication device while retaining some of its quality, both blaspheming and hearkening to Christianity’s radical roots while somehow garbling everyone’s message.
Toscano’s essays and polemics trouble the waters. Through disorientation, he raises the possibility of new and unexpected forms of thought and action. But his effectiveness as an artist lies in his power to resolve clarity from confusion. This process can be seen in the arc of the title poem from The Disparities, Toscano’s first full-length book. The poem observes the slow work of day of canvassers or surveyors at a mall, starting with destabilizing manifestos that elaborate upon otherwise unremarkable, deliberately numbing and boring exchanges. During a purchase, the speaker reflects, “As in one of Mao’s ‘four thick ropes,’ no actual rope / Binds me and this woman, over the counter.” At times bewildering, the injection of ideological maxims into ordinary exchanges shows how traditional, commodified relationships might become disoriented so as eventually to be re-oriented.
Indeed, the piece ends with a clearer reflection upon the slowed time of certain labors, both in a call to action and in a reclamation of interest from boredom. It represents a kind of reversal of the formula of Toscano’s essay on Occupy Wall Street—instead of moving from manifesto to its undoing, it moves from confusion to clarity.
Three past noon, 57 till. Do numbers tell
Anything? Plans, newsstands. Are things not done on pace?
Time. A gap. As in “to close the gap,” between what?
Hands and streets. Four minds. A relationship between them.
Somewhere between the experience of clocking in and the dream of revolutionary time, poetry may “close the gap” between what is expected from a trip to the mall and what may in fact occur. Instead of the expected alienation, engagement—a deep attention to time and experience. Instead of passivity, action in the form of “hands and streets.” Instead of isolation, relationship in the meeting of “four minds.” The poem concludes:
Beyond ease or difficulty, before pulleys:
Suns. Rivers. Shrubs. Nerves. What concept might teach, finding
What’s literally within seconds of vast ruptures.
Activism is not explicitly broached—the poem is not didactic as to the steps we should take. Instead it attempts to model a liberation more immediate and perhaps prior to effective and creative action. While the poem may start in a planned chaos of destabilizing verse, it is resolved in a clearer space that imagines deeper “ruptures,” thereby paving the way for the “pulleys” or levers of social change that will be made even more clear as we march forward in the right way.
Poetry and activism share an uneasy relationship. There is no direct translation of revolutionary action into linguistic exploration.
It is undeniable that a poetry of agency and activism can inspire the intention to set forth. But it is significant that Toscano’s poem does not end in a gesture of inspiration but in a hope to learn something—to find the concept that may “teach.” Commitment alone may be easy or it may be difficult, depending on the individual. But “beyond ease or difficulty” is the reality of the broader world and what occurs as a result of action. One needs to know how far one has traveled and how far one still needs to travel, in the spatial, temporal and personal spaces suggested by the end of The Disparities—suns, rivers, shrubs, and nerves. This “concept” that “might teach” is a task of poetry, even as defining this concept seems less possible than starting to experience it.
As shown by this reading of Toscano’s work, one way that poems can contribute to a sustained sense of agency is to model what it is to reflect upon the results of actvism—to “teach” ways of evaluating in new and creative terms the consequences of our actions. Toscano’s poetry does this by creating—through difficulty and intensity of language—a space of uncertainty. This space of uncertainty corresponds to the sense that the results of action are not guaranteed if they are sufficiently ambitious, and to the reality that events can always go “either way.”
Because all poetry, and especially modernist work explicitly geared toward disorientation, can create the experience of uncertainty, the real question is how the undetermined space is resolved. While some poems (as Yeats’s and Donne’s, above) show the passionate relinquishing of the self to a higher mystery, poetry that is also concerned with agency delivers from this uncertainty an emerging sense of consequence—a rational reckoning of what has been changed through action and what remains, for now, unchangeable. In other words poetic agency does not just inspire action, but must be aligned with reality. It reveals the stakes of action, laying bare risk and reward.
The work of poet and translator Jen Hofer also models and explores the path from uncertainty to resolution and the need to learn from and focus on what we can accomplish in real terms. One dimension of our reality—especially important given Trump’s racist statements and policies toward Mexicans and other Latinx people living in this country—is the acknowledgment that individuals in the U.S. do not always speak English. To this end, Hofer has advocated for and practiced language justice through the Antena collaborative, her project with John Pluecker. Both Hofer and Pluecker helped to co-found Antena's sister collectives,Antena Los Ángeles and Antena Houston, dedicated to local language justice advocacy. This activisim involves not only language access in public spaces, but also within activist meetings, where headsets and simultaneous interpreters allow groups with different language backgrounds to speak to each other in more or less real time and on equal terms. In a pamphlet on language justice, Antena writes:
¿Cómo sería un mundo con justicia del lenguaje? Sería un mundo donde cabrían multiples idiomas, operando en todos los niveles de la sociedad: desde la mesa de la cocina a la reuníon comunitaria, desde el museo del arte al ayuntamiento o incluso la asamblea legislativa.
While organizers have run meetings with simultaneous interpretation for some time, fewer poets have done it or written about it, and the theorizing of the practice to include not only city council meetings, but also private realms of the dinner table and the semi-private spaces of the art museum, urges poets who are monolingual in a dominant language to overcome their initial disorientation, to learn to speak better and operate in these spaces so as not to engage others’ speech through translation alone. Overcoming—or rather first experiencing—this preliminary disorientation is in fact necessary in order to enrich our experiences of difference in public and private settings, in a space of respect. It may be followed by a deeper understanding and more effective communication.
Poetic agency reveals the stakes of action, laying bare risk and reward.
In Hofer’s poetry, especially the short book Laws, there is also an attempt to explore how to resolve disorientation in favor of justice. Laws is a challenging modernist document, concerned with knowledge and communication—it is full of reflections about the “broken alphabet” of a “conversation” that “had begun in slivers.” It is also interested in action and consequence—“causality like trumpets announcing failure’s explosive misfire.” Underlying its difficult and fragmentary language, however, is a concern not just with explosively creative potential, but also with what it means to put the pieces of language and society back together.
In an interview Hofer has said that the work is based on a series of letters written from Mexico around the time of the Iraq War. This historical context is significant. One of the Bush administration’s strategies in building the case for war was to raise public anxieties through uncertainty—by making what we did not know about Saddam’s weapons appear to be an existential threat, while also laboring to create the (knowingly) false certainty that war was the only option. But the strategy of muddying the waters is not limited to politics, as Hofer appears to know and take personally. Uncertain and obscure work has become a hallmark of modernist poetry, and its difficulty has often been justified by the claim that its indeterminate character creates a space of resistance and possibility. But uncertainty alone can be used for any goal. And, as the last months have taught us, it may sow fear, spread hateful lies, and destabilize democratic institutions.
In this general cultural milieu, where falsely resolved uncertainty becomes an instrument of war, the question posed by the poet’s own choice to operate in an experimental and disorienting language is whether its own fragmentary style may be resolved for the good. Hofer’s book resonates with the awareness that “claims made against the far shore” through “incomplete knowledge, the time of day, shifts, nighties, possibilities or closures or flux” may not be revolutionary interrogations, but instead parallel the right’s assertion of a post-modern ability to move beyond the truth and “reality-based communities,” or, in the events of the last weeks, the assertion of “alternative facts.”
Each of the book’s 21-line poems is titled “of deaths, dailies, speculations, nascence (shares).” (The number 21 echoes in a wartime poem in the shots at a soldier’s funeral). This specific series of images brings to mind life’s ultimate certainty (death) with its possibilities (speculations). This combination of certainty and possibility raises the hope for community (shares) and rebirth (nascences) that comes from looking both to possibility and reality. That is, in contrast with a Bush’s aide’s assertion that the U.S. is an empire that “creates [its] own reality,” in Hofer’s view, the truth is revealed:
Leaning into the wake, waking the light shorn predictable . . .
If you want to say it, probe, react, something, anything
If it’s not the attempt, it’s the trail, the inadvertent irretrievable error
Lost in the telling . . .
This distinction between creating and “revealing” is important. “Leaning into the wake,” to “probe, react, something, anything” suggests an initial leap into action. But by placing value not on the “attempt” but the “trail,” there is also the view that assessing experience (the trail itself) is another critical part of the process. A phrase echoed in the words “it’s the trail” is the line important to many activists, by the Spanish poet Antonio Machado: “Caminante, no hay camino, / Se hace el camino en andar.” (Traveler, there is no road. / The road is made by walking.) Machado’s line does not suggest that there is literally no path and that we are within a realm only of wilderness and “error.” Instead, one makes the road by walking because it is necessary to experience the journey and assess one’s footprints over time – “Caminante, son tus huellas / el camino y nada mas.” (Traveler, the road is your footprints / and nothing else.)
In a climate of alternative facts, poetic uncertainty—the use of difficult, experimental, fragmentary, and disorienting language—takes on new meaning.
Poetry, like action, operates in a space of uncertainty and may carve out a route. In Hofer’s work, despite the awareness that falsely constructed, easily held narratives (like those which can march us toward war) are dangerous, the poem pulls against the most harmful of narratives to create its own way of assessing and seeing. To see light “shorn” of predictability, one must move forward, even if—like Adam and Eve expelled in the paradigmatic example above—there is loss and error in the telling.
• • •
A question for both Hofer and Toscano’s generally disruptive styles is whether they go far enough to bring us to a place of clarity about the consequences of action—a weighing of success and failure. As activists know, it is not the good fight that matters but the winning, and unsuccessful activism can sometimes cause greater harm than good because it opens the cause to more effective counteraction. These are all possibilities if action is to be meaningful, that we may not know before having acted, as Hofer writes, “guessing wrong, being right, sodden contested comfort.”
The Trump campaign won in part by demonizing women, immigrants, African-Americans, Muslims, and Jews. Its ability to keep focus on demonization was enabled by media coverage that devoted almost no time to policy, and instead acted as an echo chamber for the least substantive issues. The resulting vacuum made the stakes of the election more remote for many people and contributed to lower turnout.
Progressives who decry this media culture of unreality, passivity, and despair must also interrogate how literary culture has contributed to it, and what can be done differently. If literary culture is to contribute to a fully human and more agentic way, it needs to be a more encouraging force for realistic assessments of success and failure because we do not know yet what will work except that we must try to find out. While poets do not all need to commit to activism, frame their poetry in these terms, or share the same views toward agency, it is to poetry’s aesthetic diminishment when poems do not assess fully freedoms both experienced and unrealized, to tell us where we are and how far we must travel. Art does not need to provide dreamlike solace and escape in the days ahead, but “contested comfort”—an experience of challenge that is both expansive and grounding, passionate and demystifying, restorative and new.
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April 05, 2017
17 Min read time