Prepare to have your life disrupted. Free verse may be in short supply for awhile.
Sunday is the day that poet Alan Kaufman has called for a general strike—among poets—who will stop rhyming for a day of protest.
Actually, while the call to arms does refer to the event as a strike, which usually means a work-stoppage, the poet assures us that the poets will continue poeting:
[W]e will gather on the steps of City Hall…Not only are all poets welcome to read but visual artists can bring works of protest art.
I’ve no doubt that the day will be filled with vagina hats, pictures depicting police as pigs, poems about racism, sexism as well as exhortations to remind us of the plight of left-handed Tibetan lesbian llama herders and all those other issues that most Americans must be made aware of in the dawning Age of Trump.
The question is: to what end? Previously, protest has been geared toward accomplishing social change. Even Occupy Wall Street had aspirations to expose and force changes on what the protesters saw as a culture of greed, graft, and inequality. But what do these poets hope to accomplish on Sunday? It seems that the poets want us to know that they don’t like Donald Trump and they will keep on not liking him. Done.
The protest, for them, is an end in itself. It is little more than a puerile extension of the need to whine on about the things they don’t like; a Dionysian collection of shared rage and misplaced anger. Moreover, at its core, the poets’ protest is a narcissistic endeavor based on a romance with the past. It’s a throwback to the tumultuous days of the 1960’s when the poetry of revolution was actually motivating seismic changes in the culture and body politic. However, today’s poets’ protest doesn’t fuel any movement, it merely adds noise. Its main purpose, like hashtag activism, is to make those engaging in it feel as if they’ve done something, no matter how insignificant. A self-affirmation in front of a mirror.
The call to action begins by quoting and then appropriating Dylan Thomas:
“Rage, rage against the dying of the light—and the coming of the Trump….”
Rage is the thing. These poets are not looking to understand or to examine the root causes of their rage. They seek merely to let the world know they’re raging. So let them rage.
Unlike the great protest poets of the recent past—Ginsberg, Hughes and the like—whose poetry inspired and motivated a generation to call into question previously held assumptions about power, race, sex, the American Dream, the efficacy and necessity for war and other issues that moved the world, these current poets call for a protest that does nothing but shine a light on their own impotence. And it is an impotence that finds its peak expression in their wistful nostalgia for the halcyon days when the arts were honest and true mirrors to society’s ills. This is the past our current poets long for and romanticize—a time when their work was important. They want to return to a time when their art was at a cultural zenith; when their voices were bold and original and not merely the feeble echoes of their predecessors.
It’s almost as if the racism and sexism of the past needs to make a comeback for them to stay relevant. Understanding today’s issues without that intellectual crutch of the past is too much work, it seems. The world has moved on, but their imaginations haven’t. They’ve been trying to bring back the ‘60s since the ‘70s.
But their raging is precisely what keeps them as impotent they are, and it will continue to do so as long as they’re viewed (rightly) by the population at large, not as original thinkers but as partisan political actors steeped in hypocrisy. The hypocrisy, for instance, of citing opposition to the war in Iraq as the impetus of turning down invitations or attempting to undermine a White House discussion of literature and poetry organized by then First Lady, Laura Bush, whose intention was to laud American Poetry even as they salivate at the chance to perform at Obama’s White House Poetry Jam. Of course, they conveniently forgot that Obama, despite his public rhetoric, has repeatedly and unapologetically bombed civilians, reportedly bragged about it,and has been the only president at war for his whole eight year tenure.
To be fair, I’ve no doubt (or at least hope) that some honest poets spoke out against this past administration’s excesses. I laud them. But the bulk of their artistic brethren did not. Either fear or a purposeful blindness in the face of a mythos of hope and change combined with peer pressure to motivate the hush of the poet community during the Obama years. This silence has been seen and understood for what it was—the most rank and obvious hypocrisy—the hallmark, not of the poet or artist, but the propagandist.
The poets who raged for peace so brightly during the Bush administration somehow lost their spark and ability to speak truth to power during Obama’s tenure. But never fear! Miraculously, they have had their passions rekindled! So let them rage. But their own inability to stay honest and to protest Obama’s war record and other documented abuses is a large part of why they’re culturally impotent. Everyone expects them to hate Trump…and they do. You get no kudos for that, kiddos.