Verses and votes
Raymond Ramirez | Tuesday, November 6, 2018
All the best poetry is true, even if it describes landscapes of fantasy populated by imaginary beings. It is true when it reveals something real about the human condition, and educates us about mankind’s potential for good while taking a focused look at the harsh realities of our limitations. Poets have dedicated their lives to this effort, with all the fervor and discipline of religious devotees. At this time, with ballots and political ballyhoo in the news, let’s take a moment to review some verse reflections on matters political and personal.
Walt Whitman took us on a sweeping tour of the United States, flush with manifest destiny, stretching from ocean to ocean, in “Election Day, November, 1884,” a reverie on the innate grandeur of democracy in action:
“If I should need to name, O Western World, your powerfulest scene and show, / ‘Twould not be you, Niagara — nor you, ye limitless prairies — nor your huge rifts of canyons, Colorado, / Nor you, Yosemite — nor Yellowstone, with all its spasmic geyser-loops ascending to the skies, appearing and disappearing, / Nor Oregon’s white cones — nor Huron’s belt of mighty lakes — nor Mississippi’s stream: /
“ — This seething hemisphere’s humanity, as now, I’d name — the still small voice vibrating — America’s choosing day, / (The heart of it not in the chosen — the act itself the main, the quadriennial choosing,) / The stretch of North and South arous’d — sea-board and inland — Texas to Maine — the Prairie States — Vermont, Virginia, California, / The final ballot-shower from East to West — the paradox and conflict, / The countless snow-flakes falling — (a swordless conflict, / Yet more than all Rome’s wars of old, or modern Napoleon’s:) the peaceful choice of all, /
“Or good or ill humanity — welcoming the darker odds, the dross: / — Foams and ferments the wine? it serves to purify — while the heart pants, life glows: / These stormy gusts and winds waft precious ships, / Swell’d Washington’s, Jefferson’s, Lincoln’s sails.”
Whitman catalogs the physical grandeur of the country — from the mountains of the Pacific coast, across the Great Lakes, down the Mississippi — but declares that none of these marvels are the “powerfulest scene and show” the U.S. offers. That title goes to the “ballot-shower” of a national election. He marvels at the “swordless conflict” an election represents, where power changes hands in a formalized struggle, where even “the darker odds, the dross” help to stir and ferment the process. Political residue may not be attractive, but like the sediment and scum to be skimmed off of wine, they are a necessary part of the process. In Whitman’s optimistic assessment, the “gusts and winds” of politics are what propel and form our best leaders.
Not everyone shares equally in the promise of democracy. Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again” is a much more powerful and personal indictment of a political system that is especially frustrating, primarily because it falls short of serving all of its citizens. The America of Whitman’s poem is an ideal, far removed from the country described by Hughes, and Hughes acknowledges that he is spoiling the nationalist love fest: “Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark? / And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?” The poet’s truth is uncomfortable, but grounded in reality: “I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart, / I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars. / I am the red man driven from the land, / I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek — / And finding only the same old stupid plan / Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.”
While to some readers this might seem like a refrain of despair, Hughes ultimately has a message of hope, the kind of hope that keeps sending people to the ballot box: “Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death, / The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies, / We, the people, must redeem / The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers. / The mountains and the endless plain — / All, all the stretch of these great green states — / And make America again!”
The internet complicates matters today as an engine of hate and chaos that allows persons to take disappointments, petty grievances and ancient prejudices, and spin them into a toxic worldview. The technology may be of recent vintage, but poets have explored this dark practice for centuries.
William Blake’s “A Poison Tree” resonates with its message of carefully cultivated hatred and revenge: “I was angry with my friend; / I told my wrath, my wrath did end. / I was angry with my foe: / I told it not, my wrath did grow. / And I water’d it in fears, / Night & morning with my tears: / And I sunned it with smiles, / And with soft deceitful wiles. / And it grew both day and night. / Till it bore an apple bright. / And my foe beheld it shine, / And he knew that it was mine. / And into my garden stole, / When the night had veil’d the pole; / In the morning glad I see; / My foe outstretched beneath the tree.”
Blake lays out a playbook for fear-mongering despots who feed our hate and paranoid fears with sympathetic smiles and tears. We must not gorge on this poisoned fruit, however sweet and satisfying it appears. The beauty and promise of democracy is that our hopes and grievances can be aired, and acted upon, by casting a vote. The heat of political conflict is still best quenched with a shower of ballots.
Ray Ramirez is an attorney practicing, yet never perfecting, law in Texas while waiting patiently for a MacArthur Genius Grant. You may contact him at [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.