If politics is, or was, or was rumored to be, the art of compromise, political poetry, as we typically understand it, is not. Political poetry is more often poetry of protest, meant to scald or cauterize, to rally or refuse. It aims away from the middle, toward the ideal, more likely to rally the base than to move the needle, to borrow a couple of clichés from the politics of elections, strategists, and cable news.
The poetry of protest can have profound value. It can embody the woundedness of those whose oppression is doubled by its exclusion from our more recognized forms of political discourse. It can offer energy to and enlarge the imagination of those who stand up, push back, speak out, as well as potentially encouraging more to do the same. It can be a place to think more clearly and richly about the things we already think about, and it can at times awaken those of us who are only half asleep to the injustices it describes.
But it’s noteworthy, if not surprising, that political poetry in America—that American poetry at large, in its foregone marginalization and its presumed commitment to truth above practicality—so rarely engages in what we most often mean when we mention “politics” anywhere else. It’s noteworthy that we so rarely see poems that engage, strategically, with an audience that is persuadable but uncertain about the issue at hand, that treats those who might disagree as potential allies. A poetry of coalition building: How would that sound? And what value would it have? How would it reach those who aren’t already in agreement? And would we accept it even if it did?
Barack Obama will soon leave office as the most effective presidential champion of LGBTQ rights in American history (an admittedly very low bar). And if his achievements in that regard are insufficient to what actual justice demands, it seems likely that he has done most of what was politically and legally possible at this moment in history. He entered office, on the other hand, as a familiar disappointment—championing civil unions rather than marriage equality, doing and saying too little for too long. It was only after an “evolution” that his work toward justice started. Whether that “evolution” reflected an actual change of mind or simply a withholding of his actual convictions until the electorate at large had shifted that way (and Vice President Biden had forced his hand), it’s hard to imagine that he would have been elected in 2008 had he openly supported full marriage equality or legal protection for transgender and transsexual Americans.
It’s hard to conceive of an American poet making a similarly strategic “evolution.” That’s not how we conceptualize poetry. The political center of American poetry is far to the left of the country at large, so pitching a poem to an audience of American centrists would likely mean seeking an audience that hardly reads poems in the first place. And the allowance for expediency that some of us grant to politicians would never cross our minds in relationship to a poem. Sure, we understand a separation between speaker and poet, but not so much between poem and poet. A poem that strategically concedes some corner of justice in exchange for the more immediately achievable would be condemned as a moral failure.
If you’ve been paying attention to American poetry for the past half decade or so, you’re already familiar with Tony Hoagland’s poem “The Change”—or, if not with the poem, at least with the argument about it that Claudia Rankine described in her 2011 speech at the AWP conference. The most notable part of that argument (I’m assuming Rankine’s report is accurate since Hoagland, to borrow another political cliché, neither confirmed nor denied it in his public response) was Hoagland’s explanation that the poem was or is “for white people.” In the kindest possible interpretations, that’s an astonishingly awful choice of words. “For white people” conjures Jim Crow, “separate but equal,” housing, education, jobs, a world of services and opportunities so meticulously parsed by race that even the water fountain must say “whites only.”
But in the kindest of possible interpretations, the phrase also almost gestures (or might had the poem itself offered a more substantial engagement with racism) toward something interesting. What if “The Change” did more to ask its readers to reckon with racism as something ongoing rather than “past us”? And what if instead of “for white people,” with its glaring declaration that “you”—Rankine or anyone else who isn’t white—aren’t welcome here, have no right or means to even think about this poem—what if he’d instead said something like “This poem is my attempt to seduce other white people into thinking about the ways racism still guides the ways we think”? It’s a lot of “ifs”, I know. I don’t mean this as a defense of what Hoagland apparently said. But the moment intrigues me in its failed implication of a kind of political poetry—one aimed strategically at an audience not already on its side—that doesn’t seem to exist.
Ironically, Rankine is one of the very few “political” poets I can think of who seems to focus on the way her poetry interacts with an audience not already in sympathy with her claims. Citizen does substantial work to pose her readers inside black bodies, to not so much ask as insist that they either experience racism from the perspective of a black person or consciously refuse that experience. It’s a book, especially in its first sections, that does substantial work to engage an audience that has never felt and may not want to feel what it’s like to live inside the erasures of a racist society.
I don’t know of any successful American poems that are purely political in the sense that a political speech is, but I do think that there are noteworthy moments in recent poetry that, like Citizen, incorporate such strategic choices into the more familiar forms of political poetry, sometimes drawing additional poetic value from the uneasy interplay between the two—and sometimes revealing something about the enduring difficulty of speaking across our political identities.
Perhaps uniquely among American poets, Jericho Brown comes out of the world of conventional politics; he once served as a speechwriter for the mayor of New Orleans. His poem “Bullet Points” poses as and maybe is a note to be read if he is ever killed by police (Brown is black), an attempt to preempt the usual explanations that are given when a black or brown man or woman dies in police custody or during an encounter with the police. The opening lines have both the cadence and clarity of a public speech, as if anticipating the nature of the discussions that he will have been excluded from—silenced by death—by the time such a note would be of use. The first line sounds complete: “I will not shoot myself.” But across that first line ending, the statement becomes more specific, “I will not shoot myself / In the head,” and with that specificity the poem enters the universe of ways in which a black or brown man or woman may be said by the police to have caused his or her own death:
I will not shoot myself
In the head, and I will not shoot myself
In the back, 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,
Or in the jail cell of a town
I only know the name of
Because I have to drive through it
To get home.
The structure here serves first to underscore the rhetoric—the first three line endings causing the second, third, and fourth lines to land hard on the specific ways in which he will not shoot himself or hang himself, and then something similar happening in the shift from line five to six; and that last specification longer and more detailed than the first three, so that you begin to hear the explanations growing more complex and less conceivable, the addition of detail also adding to the sense of outrage, the implausibility that someone even could kill himself this way.
In the seventh line, that momentum spills over. Instead of resetting again, going back to the phrase “I will not,” the poem picks up on the last part of the preceding sentence, the prepositional phrase that gives the location, “in. . . .” That next location takes up three-and-a-half lines, expanding on the two-and-a-half-line phrase right before it. You can hear the rhetorical structure now straining to hold the energy it’s built. And you can hear, too, the poem’s rhetoric becoming a little less careful, a little less strategic. The first six lines are narrowly tailored to articulate the number and improbability of the ways in which African Americans have been accused of killing themselves. “[A] town . . . ,” on the other hand, feels fed up—with all the ways he might be killed and with being so careful in the way he speaks, as well. There’s a note of “I didn’t even want to be in this shitty town” to it that sounds less careful, less able to keep up the restraint of sticking to just one issue, of making no unnecessary enemies along the way. There’s a shift, to put it differently, in the poem’s apparent purpose, a move from political speech to speech act that manifests the outrage in more personal terms.
The poem pulls back momentarily, then: “Yes,” he writes, conceding a point, “I may be at risk.” He’s coming back to rhetoric, acknowledging a point against his argument in order to tame and turn it to his purposes. The “Yes” implies an audience, an opponent, someone trying to point out a flaw in his argument—or, more accurately, a hole in an argument he hasn’t really made. That’s how these debates usually work. When an officer shoots Walter Scott or an officer shoots Tamir Rice or Sandra Bland is found dead in a jail cell or Jesus Huerta, here in Durham, NC, is said to have shot himself while handcuffed in the backseat of a police car with a gun whose very presence in the backseat with him the officers can’t explain, someone (many someones, in fact) will invariably point out that violent crime is more common in black and brown neighborhoods—an act of blaming the victim that also erases the individuality of the victim, making him or her simply a representative of the neighborhood, and the neighborhood a representative of crime.
Brown tries to preempt that by accepting it, to avoid the ways in which it will be used to distract from his having been murdered. Being dead, he won’t be able to say anything then, so he has to anticipate it all now, which makes the poem an image of all the ways in which a black or brown person might be erased under the cover of policing—or, rather, of the impossibility of truly accounting for them all. The poem’s posture has failure built into it. And that sense of insufficiency, of being fed up, spills over from the first, long, accelerating sentence through the brief attempt to get back to strategic public discourse (“Yes”) to the next sentence, where the impatience of even having to stop and acknowledge such a thing seems to flare up into anger, and Brown—the version of him who’s speaking here—begins marshaling his ingenuity toward insult, the weird genius for wounding we have when we’re especially angry and hurt.
When we discussed this poem on our podcast, francine j. harris spoke of the next sentence, with Brown’s professed faith in the insects to consume his body, in terms of “a desire not to let violence be the thing that picks you apart, to let the earth be the thing that picks you apart.” I think she’s right, but I also hear a remarkably sharp insult, maggots and roaches, the lowest of the low—the first a familiar epithet: “beneath my floorboards,” with the “my” maybe serving as a small reminder that he’s a property owner, someone who has earned his place in the American Dream. He trusts them, he says, the maggots and ants and roaches, more than he trusts any officer to treat his dead body with respect. For anyone who enters the poem with a belief that most officers are well-meaning, that the law and its agents are worthy of respect, that these killings, while troubling, are still exceptional, this is not the sort of declaration that will invite consent. It’s the sort of thing that sends people running back to their assumptions, doubling down on what they think they already know.
From that point on, the poem never fully returns to the more narrowly constructed arguments of its first sentences. The patience required for such a thing—for an approach that invites in and accommodates those who want to believe in the fundamental goodness of America writ large—ends up feeling unsustainable. The poem’s seductions, henceforth, have to do with wit and beauty.
When I kill me, I will kill me
the same way most Americans do
I promise you: cigarette smoke,
Or a piece of meat on which I choke,
Or so broke I freeze
In one of those winters we keep
Like the earlier “Yes,” “I promise you” implies an audience, but no longer the same one. It sounds more personal now, as if the point now is less to persuade the country at large, but rather to provide some comfort to those who will lose him, the community he invokes a few lines later when he writes, in the past tense (all this so inevitable it’s already happened now), “He took / me from us. . . .” As the rhymes pile up, the syntax growing more formal to move the word “choke” out to the end of the clause and line, the image of America—of the country he is declaring his right to full participation in—gets increasingly scornful, the gluttonous citizen choking on a piece of meat, the endemic poverty, the determined blindness to climate change. He’s off topic now, too tired of it all to be polite, ready to tell America what he really thinks of it. And, implicitly, he’s also reminding us that none of this is exceptional, that police don’t kill black and brown people because a few bad apples are racist, or because the police are themselves some island of racism in an otherwise just country, but that these murders root and tangle in every part of American life.
The poem ends up far from hope, the speaker already dead, the government action (another payout) of no consequence, trying once again to declare his value, too late, his body, left behind, still beautiful, “more / Beautiful than the brand new shiny bullet / Fished from the folds of my brain.” After the dense stresses of “brand new shiny bullet,” the last line opens up, an anapestic trimester stretching out into song, the alliteration of “fished” and “folds,” two of the three stressed syllables, emphasizing the almost-languorous rhythm, the brain just brain but beautiful, too, now that it’s been revealed, but mindless, the site of a pointless forensic fishing expedition, getting the bullet that will show none of the reasons he was killed.
If a poem were to speak to an audience of people at the center of American politics, it would have to find them first, and the most common crossover space for poems is social media, where the occasional poem achieves escape velocity, entering the feeds of poets’ family and friends. Matthew Olzmann’s “Letter Beginning with Two Lines by Czesław Miłosz” did that. First emailed out as part of the Academy of American Poets’ “Poem a Day” program, the poem went far fast, an unusually immediate emblem for Americans fed up with our inability to even diminish the availability of guns.
Even more than “Bullet Points,” the poem begins, immediately after the Miłosz lines, by inviting consensus: “Can we agree Kevlar / backpacks shouldn’t be needed // for children walking to school?” The poem constructs the largest possible “we” in that moment, offering an image so absurd that no one would dare disagree. Yes. We can agree. But in being so open to everyone, the poem also takes a risk of being put to other uses. It’s easy enough to imagine someone using that image to argue, for instance, that welfare has corrupted American cities, or that the supposed breakdown of black families has led to a derangement of American society, or that the loss of Christian authority has done that, or all three.
“Letter” doesn’t actually invite those interpretations. Maybe because of context (it’s a poem, and we know that poems don’t intend such meanings), maybe because of tone, maybe because it seems to be arguing, implicitly, already, for a place where no bullets are in the air, it’s clear in these early consensus-seeking moments that Olzmann isn’t advocating for, for example, more guns. But for the same reasons I can imagine someone putting these first materials in Olzmann’s argument to very different use, I wonder about the ways in which the poem’s popularity comes, not only from its very real power, but also from the ways in which that power, much like a gun, remains available to a variety of uses. I’ll come back to that later on.
The poem has covered more than twenty-five lines before it says anything potentially disagreeable, though. It constructs an enemy we can all agree on: murder. It appeals to our feelings for the most sacred of citizens—children. It puts them inside our most privileged of spaces—their homes, their yards, and then, since property and commerce are sacred to some, too, a restaurant where they’ve purchased food. In doing so, it isolates them from the terms of such appalling dismissals as What was he doing there in the first place? Her parents should have . . . Yes. We can agree. But there’s no escaping the sense that we’re being set up, our inevitable consent secured in the interest of some other potentially less agreeable argument. And so when Olzmann ends a line and starts a sentence with the word “But,” it seems we’re about to enter that argument. The poem already seems by then to be drifting into something darker, plainer, truer: “They”—the children—“shouldn’t have to stop // to consider the speed / of a bullet or how it might // reshape their bodies.” The images of gun violence shed their exaggeration there. No longer the protective snipers in McDonald’s, it’s now the child’s imagination of a real bullet passing through his or her real and innocent flesh. “But” . . .
“But / one winter, back in Detroit, // I had one student / who opened a door and died.” One winter, one student. The “But” doesn’t yet open into argument. It just means that we do live in that world. It means that this is the real world, that children would need armor just to stand safely in their yards, that death arrives so fast in the form of a bullet that merely letting in the outside air admits enough space to eliminate a child. That this is singular and personal. That we are already there—that we are here. (Or, at least, we’re in Detroit. But the poem doesn’t say why that matters, and we’re left to wonder, depending on who and where we are, how much this poem is about us, beyond our agreement, of course. We’re left to think about what we think about “Detroit,” which probably depends in part on who we are and where we live.) And the verb, the avoidance of passive voice—not “was shot,” not “was hit by a stray bullet,” not “was murdered,” not “was killed.” Instead, the syntax makes the student into the actor, erasing, distressingly, the gun, the bullet, the shooter. There are two parallel actions: the student opened the door, the student died. The shift too easy, and terrifying for that. You can almost hear the logic, twisting, of “guns don’t kill people, people do,” a line Olzmann will invoke later in the poem, going to its logical extreme—no cause, all effect: “who opened a door and died.”
Moving into that reality changes the poem’s tone. The anger is harder to ignore, and a kind of urgency slips in, the phrases getting shorter and blunter now. Olzmann seems desperate to keep his readers from looking away, from writing the student off. Instead of making the student specific, he insists that the student could have been any student, any child. If the student lived in poverty, he doesn’t say. If the student was black or brown, he doesn’t say. And while it’s of course possible that the student wasn’t poor or of color, it’s also true that people in poverty and people of color are disproportionately harmed by the easy availability of guns in this country, and it’s also possible that those details—from Detroit, where roughly 80% of citizens are black and almost 40% live below the poverty line—don’t make it into the poem because details like those would make it too easy for many readers to stop imagining their own child opening that door. “It was the front / door to his house, but” (once again, the “but” comes at the end of a line) // “it could have been any door, / and the bullet could have written // any name.” (Later in the poem, he’ll push further out, into the kinds of killings that seem to gather more of our attention, that happen more often in suburbs, to white people, on the news: “Today, / there’s another // shooting with dead / kids everywhere. It was a school, // a movie theater, a parking lot.”)
Olzmann is back in the universalizing rhetoric here, but it’s more charged now, more dangerous. It’s less can we all agree on this than you can’t keep ignoring this. It’s escalating now, picking up speed. For a third time, the turn comes at the end of the line, with the word “but,” and if you listen closely enough you can hear the hopelessness in that, a far echo of someone arguing with someone who will not yield: “but . . . but . . . but. . . .”
a bullet doesn’t care
about “aim,” it doesn’t
the innocent and the innocent,
and how was the bullet
supposed to know this
child would open the door
at the exact wrong moment
because his friend
was outside and screaming
for help. Did I say
I had “one” student who
opened a door and died?
There were many.
It’s worth noting the two lines from Miłosz that the poem starts with: “You whom I could not save, / Listen to me.” It’s hard to tell, at first, whom he’s talking to. The people he—assuming Olzmann is ventriloquizing here, using Miłosz’s words as his own—seems to want and be unable to save are, most obviously, the people killed by guns. But he’s not talking to them in this poem. He’s talking to us—some vast American “we.” And so the “you” he could not save (note that it’s already, apparently, too late; the chance that he couldn’t meet has passed) is us, America, unable to stop killing ourselves in part, I suspect, because we are unable to conceive of ourselves as an actual, encompassing “we.” Near the end of the poem he circles back: “And you, whom I cannot save, // you may open a door // and enter a meadow, or a eulogy.” The alternatives there, the meadow or the eulogy, suggest something of the country’s broken self-image—the pastoral and the violent a kind of binary—and the implication that either one could be on the other side of the door for “you” attempts to stitch them together, to stitch us together in the belief that any of us could be the victim. It’s noteworthy here that Milosz’s “could not” has shifted to “cannot”—the impossibility a little fresher now, the aspiration to save us less remote.
But the poem is slowing down by then. Almost thirty lines have passed since “There were many,” and now it feels like, having reached out as far as he can, he’s run out of hope of convincing us to do something. The poem becomes elegiac, even as it prepares to condemn our eulogizing. It’s a bitter elegy, an elegy for the you, for us, who refuse an easily available cure. Notably, the poem doesn’t say what that cure is. It mimics our asking, mocking our performance of innocence. The “latter” here refers to opening a door and entering an elegy:
And if the latter, you will be
mourned, then buried
There will be
monuments of legislation,
little flowers made
from red tape.
What should we do? we’ll ask
again. The earth will close
like a door above you.
What should we do?
And that click you hear?
That’s just our voices,
the deadbolt of discourse
sliding into place.
Here at the end, the poem rejects rhetoric, treating it as the thing we offer instead of action. The door that the student opened and died, that later became the point of entry to meadow or elegy, is now the earth itself above the grave, the earth itself rhetoric, and discourse seals it closed. The metaphor gets a little wobbly. What, for example, is the difference between rhetoric and the discourse that latches it shut? And what about these lines: “There will be / monuments of legislation, // little flowers made / from red tape”? Legislation seems like another meaningless response—another thing that will not save us. And so, it’s worth asking, what does this poem, this rhetorical device that has no faith in rhetoric, hope to make of our agreement?
And so it seems worth asking what we (I was among those who shared it on social media, enthusiastically) were doing when we pushed the poem a little further out into the world. Neither the poem nor I offered anything we might agree on, any legislation or other action we could push for or engage in. And I wonder, in some ways, if that wasn’t among the reasons we were so quick to carry this poem out into the world, if it’s vision of hopelessness didn’t lend itself in some way to the self-presentation that is so much a part of our lives online—the long-cultivated image of ourselves that is drawn in large part in opposition, our identities safest when they are based on who we are not.
I don’t offer that to disparage Olzmann’s poem. There’s far more to “Letter” than that. But it’s striking to think about the poem’s “we,” which returns at the end: “our voices.” The “you” (“that click you hear”) seems to still be a version of us, or a part of us at least, the part that opened the door to a eulogy. And the “we,” to whatever extent it’s still possible to imagine a “we” at this point of the poem, is drawn together not by consent but by failure. What we have in common, the poem ultimately suggests, is not anything we might agree on but rather that we haven’t saved anyone from this.
That very word “we” lies awkwardly across the American grain, a word that has tended to erase at least as much as it includes. In Sterling Brown’s 1938 poem “Southern Cop,” a “we” speaks with almost comically blunt certainty, talking to itself about an unnamed person who is referred to throughout as “the Negro” and the named white police officer who shot him: Ty Kendricks, who is often referred to, familiarly, as “Ty”—almost, but not quite, one of us. “Ty” is also sometimes “he.” “The Negro” never is.
The poem stands at the other end of the attempted dialogue of Jericho Brown’s “Bullet Points,” creating a voice for those who would refuse to weigh the destruction of a black life against the more immediately (to someone who’s white) imaginable fears and vulnerabilities of the man who killed him. It’s a reminder, eighty years earlier, of all the reasons “Bullet Points” would struggle to persuade, no matter how narrowly he tailored his argument, because the terms of dismissal are too old, entrenched and rehearsed—too obviously, for too many, true.
Notably, the speakers of “Southern Cop” (or, it may be, one speaker gathering others into these shared understandings) are working toward compassion. The murder they license, justify, and dehumanize is, for the speakers, incidental to that. They are, by their lights, trying to bring kindness to someone in need of support, and it would likely shock them to hear someone thought their response anything other than generous. Kendricks seems to be a lesser member of society, and a note of polite condescension runs throughout the poem; they have already bent down so far. And so even within the bounds of whiteness, it’s possible to hear the limits of the “we” at work in the poem—just as in American life—as well as the way that an extension of the privileges of whiteness (of “we”ness) must both invoke and erase a nonwhite presence that draws the perimeters by threatening them.
Sterling isn’t interested in these people as complex characters but rather in their identity as a functioning collective, and in revealing the brutal distortions of their response. After a first stanza in which a series of uncomfortably short declarative sentences assemble like an argument, leading to the final, two-beat line, with its pretenses of a logical conclusion and its arrival at the poem’s first rhyme—“And so he shot”—the poem’s rhetoric begins to crack. As the “we” works to sweep this or that ash of reality under the carpet, it exposes itself to the poem’s readers (though not to itself). The second stanza, with its goal of understanding Kendricks, seems to understand him all too well:
Let us understand Ty Kendricks.
The Negro must have been dangerous,
Because he ran;
And here was a rookie with a chance
To prove himself a man.
The cracks in their logic are their logic, and the sickening power of “Southern Cop” sparks in that implausible fusion, the logic built of illogic much as the “we” is built of exclusion, and neither one ruffled by either of those facts, no matter how plainly Brown lets them show. “The Negro” becomes more prominent as the poem goes on. In the third and penultimate stanza—in which the speakers aspire to condoning Kendricks as a kind of consolation prize, since they “cannot decorate”—he gets two mentions, though in neither case is he the subject of the sentence:
When he found what the Negro was running for,
It was too late;
And all we can say for the Negro is
It was unfortunate.
Their case is appalling—that’s the point. And the longer they speak, the worse it gets, the more glaring and prominent and almost explicit what they’re not saying becomes. That’s the point, too—to inhabit this language in order to expose it, to let it expose itself. “Unfortunate” rhymes weakly against “late,” accentuating the word’s absurd insufficiency, its diminishment of both the devastation caused and the actions that caused it—relegating them to the realm of fortune, which is beyond human action or help. “And all we can say” is flatly untrue, even within the boundaries of this stanza. Strikingly, the one strategy they don’t engage in is that of claiming that “the Negro” was guilty, was a threat to Kendricks or others, that the shooting was necessary. In a world where “unfortunate” might seem sufficient, there’s no apparent need for that.
The final stanza advocates “pity” and then foregrounds the pity denied. The language here gets richer, and in the final line the epithet for “the Negro” for the first and last time takes on an added term, as he becomes more specific and more audibly afflicted:
Let us pity Ty Kendricks.
He has been through enough,
Standing there, his big gun smoking,
Having to hear the wenches wail
And the dying Negro moan.
“Rabbit-scared,” “the wenches wail,” “the dying Negro moan”: the writing here is more figurative, more cruel, and more musical. More full of life and more full of the capacity to kill. Even as “the wenches” introduces a kind of insult that’s new to the speakers’ polite poise, and even as they’re framed as something that the pitied—
perhaps a little stupid (his actions having ruffled the polite comfort of “our” way of life)—Kendricks would have to hear, they also provide an actual contrast to the “alone”ness of Kendricks, a reminder that “the Negro” was part of a community, a “we” that is utterly outside the “we” of the poem and that in fact is granted no language, just wailing and moaning (the latter rhyming hard and pointedly with “alone”).
The poem ends firmly, with a terrible sense of resolution, but it also spirals out into greater levels of complexity here. In including his “Having to hear the wenches wail / And the dying Negro moan” among the hardships Kendricks has already suffered, the speakers admit to the reality of “the Negro” and “the wenches” as people who grieve and suffer and whose suffering has weight and reality enough to cause empathetic pain of the very kind they refuse throughout the poem. They acknowledge this as something much more than unfortunate, even as they use that to minimize the need to punish Kendricks for causing it. They introduce the idea of his guilt in saying that he has already suffered enough. And they push Kendricks slightly outside of the circle understanding might and decorating certainly would have brought him into. They have, that is to say, made him singular; they have singled him out. And if they cannot—or, in their misplaced benevolence, in their theater of generosity, will not—condemn him, neither can they pull him too close.
Brown gives the last word to the wordless dying man. The moan, once again grammatically subordinate, is the poem’s final and most memorable element. For most readers, and maybe (though only maybe) even for some of the speakers, it haunts both the poem that precedes it and the silence that comes after. It is, among many other things, a reminder that if we (and by “we” here I mean especially people like me, white people) are to speak credibly about any kind of American “we,” we will have to do so in a way that can accommodate that moan and the millions of other moans that have been omitted from American discourse for all the centuries of its being.
The idea—and the ideal—of an American “we” is often predicated on the presentation of a privileged norm as a universal standard, and so the use of “I” has often served as a first step in correcting the record, asserting the authority of a voice that the “we” would dismiss. Early in her career, Lucille Clifton wrote one of her great poems in explicit refusal of the response of “the man” to her art and being. As in so many of her poems, in “if i stand in my window” Clifton places her black, female body, with all its historical implications, but also with its immediate reality, at the center of her singing. The poem, which is one, continuous, if/then statement, begins in delight and never departs from there. She opens, using “my” in each of the first three lines, pairing it with “own” in the second, grounding the poem’s assertion, as she will throughout, in ownership, something, not coincidentally, that African Americans couldn’t claim over even their own flesh for centuries:
if i stand in my window
naked in my own house
and press my breasts
against the windowpane
like black birds pushing against glass . . .
After a second “if” (“if the man come to stop me / in my own house”) she conjures the response of “the man” in a final stanza that begins not with “then” but with “let him”—a lordly condescension reminiscent of the “Let us” in “Southern Cop”:
let him watch my black body
push against my own glass
let him discover self
let him run naked through the streets
praying in tongues
It’s maybe worth noting that the poem does not refuse a white audience. What it rejects—what it revels in its power to reject—is the attempt of “the man” to make her answerable to his offense at her specifically black body. It declares her house and her poem as a place of almost magical immunity to that judgment, her body so powerful that “the man” will not only end up himself naked, not in his house but out in “the streets / crying / praying in tongues,” but will also, perhaps more astonishingly, “discover self,” come into contact with his own singularity, no longer “the man” in any collective sense but simply an individual without any special power or authority.
It’s probably worth nothing that the poem is a fantasy, too, though a fantasy that creates a needed reality, one in which such movement becomes more possible, even if “the man” will not, in fact, discover anything about himself there. For that to happen (and, to be clear, its happening is not Clifton’s actual goal in this poem), for “the man” to “discover self,” he would first have to feel (and here’s the rub) that his self were safe.
If we do want to persuade those who disagree with us, who see themselves as not being “us” in the first place, then before asking the question “Can we agree?” we may first have to answer the question “Can I trust you?” The whole idea of this appalls many, and understandably so, especially if you’re among those still being kicked around and even killed by “the man.” But I do believe it’s possible, without asking those who are aggrieved to do the work of conciliation and without losing our sense of proportion, to recognize that most of us are wounded, including those who wound. And even as I doubt poetry has the audience or influence to alter American political life, I do believe that it offers models of imagination and interaction, of what we can say, and how, and how we can be addressed.
To that end (among others), Clifton’s 1991 poem “won’t you celebrate with me” seems especially significant. The “you” that it invokes, like Rankine’s, is likely to alter in meaning depending on who reads it, but here it’s an identity any reader could conceivably enter without forsaking his or her own self-conception. The poem introduces “you” even before it mentions the speaker. And unlike Olzmann’s “Can we agree . . . ,” the opening sentence gives no suggestion of having a design on its reader beyond its welcome:
won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
The phrase “a kind of life,” though, runs askance from the idea of celebration. It suggests something imperfect—“kind of” implying, not that this is one kind among the many available, but that this is only sort of a life. The small sentence that follows seems almost to apologize for that shortcoming, or at least to explain it. But as she does, continuing her explanation, that same apparent insufficiency turns out to be the reason for celebration—a simultaneous recognition of its achievement, its artifice, and its integrity, based in the unadulterated encounter with herself:
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up . . .
It is, from one angle, easy to see this as a claim of self-reliance, a rejection of the poets, traditions, and pioneers that preceded her, as well as the community of friends and family that helped her to grow. After all, she describes the creation as occurring with “my one hand holding tight / my other hand.” But it’s also easy to go too far with that. Even as the poem claims that she worked without models, she builds the poem on a series of allusions. More pronounced and ultimately more persuasive is Clifton’s attempt to make, in the midst of that making, an active and improvisatory community inclusive of anyone willing to accept her invitation.
The poem’s concluding sentence—“come celebrate / with me that everyday / something has tried to kill me / and has failed”—introduces an outside force against which the community might define itself: “something.” It’s a remarkably vague term, made real by the menace she attributes to it and the easy confidence with which she does so. Like “the man” in “if I stand in my window,” it’s an artful enemy, both imprecise and persuasive, and yet, as in that poem, it also seems to pull no punches. Among the reasons “something” has tried to kill her is that she is, “both nonwhite and woman,” and the attempt to kill her continues to happen “everyday.”
It’s also a funny sentence—however darkly. Before that final line, it seems to ask its readers to celebrate “that everyday / something has tried to kill me.” The final line reverses that, but it doesn’t remove it. The celebration isn’t just rooted in the fact that she’s alive; it’s rooted in all that she has survived. Among the things that distinguish Clifton from most other important American poets is the radiant health of her poems. Even when she writes on illness, as she often does, she seems to stand effortlessly, healthily, in her knowledge of the world as it is, however unforgivable what she sees. It’s what makes her such a healing presence in American literature, someone who can balance awareness and even embodiment of the moan that ends Brown’s “Southern Cop” (and write a poem as terrifying as “jasper texas 1998”) and an impulse to live fully and compassionately. Whether or not anyone (and here I mean in particular anyone who is white) who isn’t already interested in listening to the implications of that moan will actually accept Clifton’s invitation, I can’t say with any confidence. But if we can’t, I fear that we (that the hope, even, of a meaningful American “we”) are too wounded, too warped by history and blindness and rage, to heal and progress anytime soon.
Most of the poets I’ve written about in this essay are black. None of them are white. I am. I want to be clear: I do not mean that it is the responsibility of those who have been and continue to be most harmed by the history of American privilege and its brutal self-protection, to reach out. Nor do I mean to say that the poetry of protest is less valuable than the poetry (were it to exist) of consensus-building. What I want to say is, I think, after all these words, something smaller, wider, and possibly more naïve than that.
In her early poem, “The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith,” Gwendolyn Brooks takes leave, momentarily, of the rich language that relishes Smith’s gaudy wardrobe to state, plainly, “People are so in need, in need of help. / People want so much that they do not know.” She’s writing of black people in a black neighborhood in the 1940s, and I’m wary of uprooting these lines to speak of something broader than that. And yet: they are. They do. Our anger is (our angers are?) so pronounced right now, so present and bent, so dry and sere. It’s easy and it’s accurate to put a lot of this down to bigotry. But it’s also true that people are so in need, in need of help. That people want so much that they do not know. And part of what they want is to be heard, even if they, even if we, don’t know what we want to say. Again, I do not think that poems can cure us. They play too small a part in American life. But we write them anyway, and we read them anyway, and sometimes they can show us something about what it takes to hear each other, to be vulnerable and broken and to be beautiful still. And sometimes even in the way they talk they can, paradoxically, show us what it might sound like to hear.
Poems won’t save us. On the worst days, and there have been many of them recently, I’m not sure anything will. And yet some things go on improving, too. And sometimes—often—some of us are angry about that. Can we agree? Can we even say “we” without leaving someone out? Probably not. With so many Americans preparing to vote for a presidential candidate who has based his appeal on the presentation of explicit bigotry as a kind of intellectual freedom and integrity, it’s hard to imagine in the present tense’s plausible future. And yet the ideal remains essential, as do aesthetic acts that measure both the pull of that ideal and the cost of our failure.