A poet laureate comes to Washington. Yawn. In the world capital of the sound and fury that often signifies not very much, the disciplined sentiments of a poet sound as alien as a tax cut for millionaires. We live in a city of argument, one-upmanship and winners and losers playing a power game where rhetoric rules without eloquence.
Pragmatism trumps poetry every time. We have no majesty, none of the grace notes of language and no call for a poet to memorialize events, celebratory or tragic.
But wait. Natasha Trethewey, the newest poet laureate, wants to change that. By moving to Washington this month from Atlanta, where she has been an English professor at Emory University, she hopes to start a conversation about poetry and how it enriches the lives even of the political class.
“Poetry is more diplomatic than we ever are in our everyday lives,” she told an interviewer when she was first appointed. “It’s the most humane repository of our feelings and thoughts, our most humane and dignified thoughts.”
Well, we could use a little dignity and a little empathy. Almost everybody in Washington is angry, selfish and cursed with an ego the size of a Buick. The old Congress is out. The new one has been here a week and it hasn’t changed a thing. Shelley described poets as “unacknowledged legislators of the world,” but our legislators, acknowledged or otherwise, are no poets. Nor does the president lead. Barack Obama nominates Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense in the “bipartisan tradition,” although he’s widely regarded by Republicans as a renegade. That’ll show us.
Can poetry help us with healing or is that hopelessly naive? Natasha Trethewey knows a little about what it takes get over a horrific wound. Her stepfather fatally shot her mother when she was 19 years old. She was born in Gulfport, Miss., of mixed-race parents.
Her father was white and her mother was black. They divorced when she was 6, and when she walked down the street with her mother in Atlanta strangers thought she was with her maid. She grapples with the “oppositions” in her life.
Our leaders and politicians ought to learn to deal with the oppositions in their lives, too. But the battles in Washington look too ominous for poetic expression without a poet like T.S. Eliot and his hollow men.
“The truth of poetry is not the truth of history,” said Philip Levine, our last poet laureate. Wordsworth thought poetry springs from “emotion recollected in tranquility,” and there’s little reflection and absolutely no tranquility in the nation’s capital. A little attention to language could help.
In an essay on why poetry matters, former poet laureate Dana Goia wrote in The Atlantic magazine how the art of using words makes a difference: “A society whose intellectual leaders lose the skill to shape, appreciate and understand the power of language will become the slaves of those who retain it — be they politicians, preachers, copywriters or newscasters.” It was said of Winston Churchill, the rare politician who mastered words, that he marshaled the English language and sent it to war.
We suffer from the shorthand of the inarticulate, whether tweeting or texting. Technology shapes bad habits. Debating styles on television, on the Internet and in Congress suffer as well. There’s too much preaching (and preening) to ideological choirs, and the singing is nearly always off-key. Anyone listening to the rhetoric of the late campaign or trying now to understand the “fiscal cliff” knows how clean, honest language working toward clarity was sacrificed to bluster and bombast.
Perhaps the most underrated of those speaking up during the past weeks was Speaker John A. Boehner, who had an impossible task of keeping feuding children from tearing apart any agreement. Although it’s hard to find fluency of expression on Capitol Hill, the speaker of the House managed to give a moving speech after he was re-elected with 12 Republicans defecting. As a leader who looks uncomfortable in the spotlight and whose eyes customarily tear up (Churchill called his own frequent tears “the blub” and never apologized for them), he showed uncommon composure when he addressed his majority with forceful prose that combined responsibility with admonition in parallel sentences. Not easy to do in a brawling atmosphere of self-righteous pugilism.
“So if you have come here to see your name in lights to pass off political victory as accomplishment, you have come to the wrong place,” he said. “If you have come here humbled by the opportunity to serve; if you have come here to be the determined voice of the people; if you have come here to carry the standard of leadership demanded not just by our constituents but by the times, then you have come to the right place.”
He may or may not be right about coming to the right place, but he was clear in stating what’s ahead for them. To paraphrase another famous poet laureate — there are promises to keep and miles to go before we sleep.
Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.