Aster. Nasturtium. Delphinium. We thought
Fingers in dirt meant it was our dirt…
Where the world ends, everything cut down.
John Crawford. Eric Garner. Mike Brown.
Opening with the planting of flowers, Jericho Brown’s poem concludes with names of African Americans shot dead, murdered: Brown in Ferguson, Garner in NYC, Crawford in Beavercreek. Add George Floyd to that list of “everything cut down”.
Brown’s The Tradition is verse that stings, and hence for the present moment. It cuts through the rhetoric of belonging that marks the poetry of the people, of democracy. Brown ironises ‘planting’ – recall slave plantations facilitated by slavery – to point to not crops cut down, but African Americans. Let us take a look at the poetry of democracy framed by Brown’s poetry, and Floyd.
An Inclusive Collective?
Walt Whitman, the acknowledged bard of and for American democracy, opens his Song of Myself (1892 version) with these famous lines:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
Whitman sets up an aspirational model for the ‘demos’ of democracy here. The tension between the individual and the collective, collapse of the democratic ideal in the form of exclusions, identity politics of a democracy, crisis of tyranny entering the system and other themes of democratic belonging occur in poetry before and after Whitman’s stirring peroration.
Divergent from Whitman’s imagining is Langston Hughes, fully aware of how the American dream was based on slavery and genocide, in ‘Let America be America Again’:
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
The worry over tyrants eroding the foundations of the democratic ideal is also reflected in the Polish Miodrag Stanisavljević’s ‘Tiny Tyrant’s Letter of Thanks to his People’:
My beautiful triune people, you’re fairest
in the morning when you gush forth
from your colon-colonies
and your public transport vans – thank you.
The ruler praises his people for their endurance:
You fill me with tenderness
As you queue on a rainful morning
for a triangle of milk, a rhombus of flour, a circle of shortening.
If no one else, lizards,
sunbathing on the ruins of cities,
will sing my praises.
The people who chose him to lead create the opportunity for him to ruin entire nations. Is the collective idea(l) uniformly egalitarian? Hughes thinks not, when in ‘Let America be America Again’ he writes:
There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free”.
The Other in Poetry
In his Tanner Lectures (Princeton) and later published as Democracy, Culture and the Voice of Poetry (2002), Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky says:
to some extent, poetry always includes the social realm because poetry’s very voice evokes the attentive presence of some other, or its lack: an auditor, significantly absent or present.
The ‘attentive presence’ is of excluded peoples. Poetry draws attention to this Other, marked by an absence of freedom and belonging. Closer home, Sukirtharani’s portrait of the Indian village would gesture at this non-belonging:
Our bare feet are drenched
By the pain of caste that drips from our lips
As we drink tea from palm-leaf cups,
Standing at an untouchable distance…
An ‘untouchable distance’ signifies literal and metaphoric distancing: cast out, cast away. Caste, like race in America, defines the village, and Sukirtharani’s poem marks the excluded, invisible villagers. Jericho Brown speaks of the dehumanised Other:
The people of my country believe
We can’t be hurt if we can be bought.
The ‘we’ signifies presumed citizens, but visible only as commodities. Of those Othered within the nation, Czeslaw Milosz says in ‘Three Talks on Civilization’:
The dark blush of anger
the impolite reply
the loathing of foreigners
uphold the State.
The country depends on the labour of the oppressed and the excluded, as in Brown’s ‘Hero’:
Gratitude is black — Black as a hero returning from war to a country
that banked on his death.
Thank God. It can’t get much darker than that.
The ‘foreigners’ are those within the nation rendered into strangers by the rhetoric of exclusion: internal Others excluded from the ‘demos’ of democracy, thereby allowing us to fantasise a safe democracy. Milosz’s lines would be echoed by Constantin Cavafy in ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’, a poem in which a rhetoric of threatening, non-existent barbarians help the citizens unite, although no barbarians ever arrive.
Democracy is not always about equality, and how social hierarchies erode its ideals is a theme in many poets. Carl Sandburg in ‘The Long Shadow of Lincoln’, ponders on the nature of the Republic:
There is dust alive
with dreams of The Republic,
with dreams of the Family of Man
flung wide on a shrinking globe with old timetables,
old maps, old guide-posts torn into shreds, shot into tatters
burnt in a firewind, lost in the shambles,
faded in rubble and ashes.
The nation subsumes, perhaps violently, everyone into ‘the family of man’ but there has been too much diffusion and division for the nation to see itself as ‘one’. Adopting Lincoln’s line from his 1862 speech to the Congress, ‘we must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country’, Sandburg calls for new ways of renewing the nation’s ideals.
To ‘disenthrall’ is the job of the poets. To perceive the world differently, and perceive people, identities, the nation in a new frame is to also bring, via the aesthetic, ethics into the being of the nation and a lingua franca. Poets working within an aesthetic of traumatic materialism, foreground unjust social conditions, whether it is William Blake on chimney sweepers or the African American poets on racism.
Hypocrisy of Promises
The perception and practice towards a different world is signalled in the criticism levelled against the promises of a better tomorrow. Blake would capture this best in his acerbic account of the promise to the hopelessly exploited chimney sweeper:
we rose in the dark
And got with our bags & our brushes to work.
Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm;
So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.
The long-suffering chimney sweeper is assuaged: if they continue to do their duty, they will not be harmed. Thus, the boy is asked to shut up and continue working without weeping by the Angel:
Angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy,
He’d have God for his father & never want joy.
The promise of tomorrow is not good enough, says Langston Hughes in ‘Democracy’:
I tire so of hearing people say,
Let things take their course.
Tomorrow is another day.
I do not need my freedom when I’m dead.
I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.
The promise of heaven is all there is. Brown describes heaven as ‘that far terrain/Between Promise and Apology’ in ‘Ganymede’, capturing the vast gap between the two. To remember, to recite, is an assertion of belonging. The transformation of a country into a more inclusive one is an ethico-political project. It may begin with the poetic assertion of the ‘right to have rights’, in Hannah Arendt’s phrasing, to claim a belonging, via memories in many cases. One sees assertion at the end of Nissim Ezekiel’s ‘Background, Casually’:
I have made my commitments now.
This is one: to stay where I am,
As others choose to give themselves
In some remote and backward place.
My backward place is where I am.
Or Langston Hughes who says in ‘I, Too’:
Tomorrow, I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,” Then.
And concluding with: ‘I, too, am America’.
Elizabeth Alexander in ‘Praise Song for the Day’, recited at Barack Obama’s inaugural, would emphasise the right and necessity, to narrate, to remember:
Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,
picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.
Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Alexander references the Chinese Americans, the slaves who worked on the plantations, and others: they made the country. All this, she says, has to be remembered and sung. If one is not alert to this history – and poets like Jericho Brown and Claudia Rankine (in Citizen) draw attention to Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin, James Craig Anderson and other African Americans killed by the police and/or racist mobs – then one runs the risk of having it repeated. The Sarajevan poet Selma Asotić warns us in ‘History’:
For history happens to
History happens to the weary.
One drowsy morning,
as you wriggle in your
bed, wind will blow down your street,
sweeping the flags, and a hoarse voice
under your window
will burst into Lili Marlene.
Only then will you realise
it has begun.
(‘Lili Marlene’ was the broadcast over German radio after the occupation, by the German army, of Belgrade in 1941.)
That said, whether one is allowed to pronounce a participation in the nation is a moot point: Milosz in ‘A Task’:
We were permitted to shriek in the tongue of dwarfs and demons
But pure and generous words were forbidden
Under so stiff a penalty that whoever dared to pronounce one
Considered himself as a lost man.
Poems, evidently, perform the democratic ideal, its institutionalising, its failures, its dreams and its nightmares. Poets, as the ‘unacknowledged legislators’ are concerned with the best way of speaking of how the collective imagines itself, excludes some and banishes others. If, as Martha Nussbaum puts it, the disadvantaged are at the centre of the literary imagination, so is the hope for the disadvantaged. In poetry, at least, ‘Hope and History rhyme’ (Seamus Heaney).
To move forward, aware of the perversions of history requires poetry. Or, as Elizabeth Alexander puts it about poetry in frightening times:
In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,
Praise song for walking forward in that light.
To walk forward into change requires singing: poetry. But, like the country, the singing has to change. And so, sung in the wake of George Floyd will be Jericho Brown’s ‘Bullet Points’:
I will not shoot myself
In the head, and I will not shoot myself
In the back, and I will not hang myself
With a trashbag, and if I do,
I promise you, I will not do it
In a police car while handcuffed
I promise if you hear
Of me dead anywhere near
A cop, then that cop killed me.
(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)
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