This is the year it could happen. Maybe you’re stuck in a stop-and-go rubberneck on the 91 freeway, the radio a dull drone through your morning migraine as the partisan station of your choice recaps the political news of the day.
Maybe it’s already happened. Maybe you’ve already begun thinking of words that rhyme with candidate names.
Wherever it happens, you might have the sudden urge to write a political poem sometime during the next eight months. To help you get ready, I’ve prepared this simple guide to help you handle the situation with aplomb.
First of all: Don’t panic. Pull to the side of the road somewhere safe, or wait for the nearest exit, then find an empty parking lot or an exceptionally long drive-through line. Poems sometimes write themselves, but they can’t write themselves while you’re driving. Only poem in park.
Don’t feel guilty. A poem is just a special way to talk about special things. We all have an innate desire to say the un-sayable, to articulate all that lies just beyond the reach of articulation. Poetry can happen to anyone, anywhere, so remember: It’s not your fault.
Find a recording device. Use your smartphone, if you have one, to record your poem as a voice memo, text it to a friend, email it to yourself, or tap it out using a standard writing application.
If not, many of the world’s greatest poems have been written on ancient, crusty glovebox napkins. It’s true. If all else fails, there’s still memorization, a pneumonic device, which historically has been the point of poetry more often than not. Whatever tool you use, just don’t lose it.
Now that you have your poem saved, the real trouble begins. Sure, you’ve written something “felt in the blood and felt along the heart,” as Wordsworth put it, but what next? Does your political poem have any cultural value? Should you share it with close friends, or perhaps even the public?
On this question, poets themselves have long been split. In “A Defense of Poetry,” Percy Shelley famously wrote that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” and others have been trying to pat themselves on the back equally firmly ever since.
William Carlos Williams says, “It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” Your political poem could be a matter of life and death! More recently, Meena Alexander writes that, “We have poetry/ So we do not die of history,” a statement I particularly love.
Not everyone agrees, though. In a 1965 lecture to students at Berkeley, Jack Spicer said, “I don’t know of any political poems which have worked,” and suggested instead of writing poems that they write letters to their congressmen. Both would be equally effective, he reasoned.
I once asked National Book Award winner Troy Jollimore why he finds political poems difficult to write, and he worried about preaching to the converted: “The people who know those are good values are already on my side; the people that don’t think they’re good values aren’t going to be convinced by my siding up with good values.”
He has a point, too. A poem isn’t an argument. A poem’s purpose isn’t to persuade — persuasion is for op-eds and campaign ads.
So keeping that in mind, re-read your political poem. Is it cheerleading, or is it trail-blazing? Does it reach deeper into the abyss to haul up some new creature?
Just last week, an Orange County poet named David Miller wrote in a political poem, an elegy for the personified American Dream: “I ran when I heard you crying/ like a phone, no one told me how alone you are.” Now that’s what Shelley meant when he said that poetry “purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being.”
Be honest, does your political poem really purge the film of familiarity, or is it just more mosquito guts on the windshield? If it’s the former, then by all means share it widely! This is the year for purging.
Wrightwood author Timothy Green is editor of Rattle magazine