Years ago I cooked in a Seattle restaurant that was slowly heading toward bankruptcy. During one typically slow shift, an Anglo prep cook named Peter was chatting in Spanish with Jorge, a Mexican dishwasher. At one point, Peter (who was an English major at the University of Washington) turned to me and said “Hey Bill, have you heard of a poet named Neruda?”
“Yeah, of course.” Looking at Jorge, I said “Pablo Neruda. Chileno. Canto General. Song of Protest, y… la copa Nobel?” (My restaurant Spanish was marginal at best, and I had no idea how to translate “Nobel Prize.”)
“Si, si,” he said, nodding enthusiastically. “Neruda. Neruda.” Jorge spoke almost no English, so I never got to ask him about his familiarity with Neruda. I didn’t know much about him, except that he was from Ciudad Durango and he lived with two of his brothers who also worked at our failing restaurant. I can’t imagine Jorge had much formal education, but unlike almost everyone else in that restaurant, some of whom had university degrees, he could speak passionately about a poet. From my perspective, that meant a lot.
Jack Spicer said “Poetry makes nothing happen,” but clearly he meant it makes nothing happen in the US. In many cultures and nations, poetry actually matters in a tangible, obvious way, and it has an unmistakable political component. Léopold Sédar Senghor was the first president of Senegal; Aimé Césaire was both mayor of Fort de France and President of the Regional Council of Martinique. José Marti was almost as well known for his political work and writings as for his poetry. On the other side of the ledger are those poets who have been marginalized, imprisoned, or executed for their work: Akhmatova, Garcia Lorca, Mayakovsky, Hashem Shaabani, Lin Zhao, and many, many others. When Sartre was arrested in 1968 for his role in the general strike in France, President Charles de Gaulle pardoned him, saying “One does not arrest Voltaire.” It’s impossible to imagine an American leader would think a writer was worth either arresting or pardoning. At least once a year I ask my students, all of whom are English majors, if they can name a living American poet. Occasionally I’ll get “Maya Angelou” (who at least once fit into both of those categories). More often I get silence and wry smiles. They know they should know at least one, but don’t feel bad that they don’t. Hey, it’s just poetry.
At the same time, Neruda remains popular for reasons that go beyond both poetry and politics. When he read to 100,000 people in São Paolo in 1945, it’s doubtful that all of them were there for his work, especially since many in the Lusophone audience would have missed at least parts of his Spanish-language poems; it’s equally doubtful that all of them shared his admiration for Stalin. Instead, Neruda represented both a politically engaged poet and a figure who transcended or exceeded those categories. He became a Poetic Hero, part of a line that runs from Byron to Mayakovsky to Bob Marley, to even Che Guevara, whose likeness today adorns the t-shirts of young people who almost certainly know little to nothing of his politics. These men (and of course they’re always men) are iconic representations of a type of Romantic male hero: they’re outsiders who seem to present a challenge to the existing political and social orders, admired and/or feared by men, desired by straight women. Ultimately, they’re revered for their personalities or personae as much as for their poetry.
One way to understand this phenomenon is to return to Plato’s discussion of poetry in Book X of The Republic. The standard reading is that Plato wants to ban the poets from his ideal state, but that’s always struck me as arguable at best. Book X begins with Socrates asserting “[o]f the many excellences which I perceive in the order of our State, there is none which upon reflection pleases me better than the rule about poetry,” a rule which (as he explains) means “the rejection of imitative poetry” (Republic 378). However, as should be obvious, the format of the Platonic dialogues, in which Socrates and his interlocutors are themselves fictionalized characters, is a form of imitation. Plato is almost certainly using dramatic irony when the character of Socrates insists “[s]peaking in confidence, for I should not like to have my words repeated to the tragedians and the rest of the imitative tribe – but I do not mind saying to you, that all poetical imitations are ruinous to the understanding of the hearers, and that the knowledge of their true nature is the only antidote to them” (Republic 380). It’s almost comical for the character of Socrates to assert that he’s speaking in confidence in a written text, the entire point of which is to be disseminated.
Socrates’ first discussion of Homer is hardly a scorching condemnation: “Well, I will tell you, although I have always from my earliest youth had an awe and love of Homer, which even now makes the words falter on my lips, for he is the great captain and teacher of the whole of that charming tragic company; but a man is not to be reverenced more than the truth, and therefore I will speak out.” Beginning with such a full-throated compliment is hardly the best way to start an indictment of a man whose works Socrates would (nominally) ban from his ideal republic. One of Socrates’ major critiques of Homer is equally peculiar, as he condemns the poet for not being a political leader:
The good order of Lacedaemon is due to Lycurgus, and many other cities great and small have been similarly benefited by others; but who says that you have been a good legislator to them and have done them any good? Italy and Sicily boast of Charondas, and there is Solon who is renowned among us; but what city has anything to say about you?’ Is there any city which he might name? (Republic 381)
Socrates has already acknowledged the “awe and love” which he had felt for Homer since childhood, but in what almost seems like a non-sequitur, he admonishes the poet for never serving as a ruler or a legislator (which Shelley responds to in his “Defense of Poetry). But taking that at face value, we can assume that a poet such as Homer – one who can elicit awe, love, and even reverence – could remain in Socrates’ ideal state if that poet also served as a politician. Socrates, in other words, is at least implicitly calling for a fusion of poetry and politics.
In many ways, that’s precisely what Donald Trump has done, and Trump provides a bizarre and reactionary version of the tradition of the Poetic Hero. Let’s return to Socrates’ point about imitation:
the imitator…is a long way off the truth, and can do all things because he lightly touches on a small part of them, and that part an image. For example: A painter will paint a cobbler, carpenter, or any other artist, though he knows nothing of their arts; and, if he is a good artist, he may deceive children or simple persons, when he shows them his picture of a carpenter from a distance, and they will fancy that they are looking at a real carpenter (Republic 383).
Donald Trump is perhaps exceeded only by Walt Disney in his use of the arts of imitation for the types of deceptions Socrates discusses. His political career essentially began in reality TV, when he constructed the simulation of hard-driving, no nonsense, take-no-crap boss on The Apprentice. Trump University was a shameless scam designed to sell the illusion of an institution of higher learning. Trump’s now shuttered Taj Mahal casino (where, I’m embarrassed to admit, I sometimes took my grandmother to play the nickel slots) was a parodic mishmash of wholly incongruous, pseudo-Asian styles meant to convey the image of “Oriental” opulence. Perhaps his most bizarre imitation was his simulation of the Candidate Who Would “Drain the Swamp” and Protect the (White) Working Class, a persona that was belied by his very obvious history as a grifting plutocrat.
As I’ve noted elsewhere, Trump’s surrogates have actually insisted his words should be interpreted poetically. Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager, made this astonishing assertion:
This is the problem with the media. You guys took everything that Donald Trump said so literally. The American people didn’t. They understood it. They understood that sometimes, when you have a conversation with people, whether it’s around the dinner table or at a bar, you’re going to say things, and sometimes you don’t have all the facts to back it up. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/12/02/corey-lewandowskis-very-odd-explanation-of-donald-trumps-facts/?utm_term=.ea32f676d61b)
Lewandowski makes two extraordinary claims. The first is that Trump’s words are not literal but poetic: they are metaphorical or symbolic, pointing not toward the capital-T truth that’s Homer’s ultimate goal, but toward some indeterminate meeting that can only be ascertained by the individual’s intuition. The second claim goes even further. Trump, like a guy at a bar, or a relative at the dinner table, instead of the most powerful political leader in the world, will sometimes say things which “don’t have all the facts to back [them] up.” And that’s okay! It’s like poetry!
One of Socrates’s central complaints about Homer is that his characters endure their trials not with “masculine” stoicism, but with feminine displays of emotion that are actively detrimental to the structure of the state:
Hear and judge: The best of us, as I conceive, when we listen to a passage of Homer, or one of the tragedians, in which he represents some pitiful hero who is drawling out his sorrows in a long oration, or weeping, and smiting his breast –the best of us, you know, delight in giving way to sympathy, and are in raptures at the excellence of the poet who stirs our feelings most…
But when any sorrow of our own happens to us, then you may observe that we pride ourselves on the opposite quality –we would fain be quiet and patient; this is the manly part, and the other which delighted us in the recitation is now deemed to be the part of a woman (Republic 385)
Trump’s supporters frequently used misogynist language so excessive that it bordered on self-parody: they sported sings and t-shirts with slogans such as “Trump that bitch” and “Finally, a president with balls.” The irony is that despite this pseudo-macho bluster, much of Trump’s persona was and is built on exactly the “womanly” orations that Socrates despises. Just as the Homeric hero bemoans the unjust actions of the gods, Trump continues to whine about the “unfair” actions of the “dishonest media,” “Crooked Hillary,” the intelligence community, celebrities, beauty queens, political leaders, the parents of soldiers killed in action, union bosses, and virtually anyone who appears to oppose him. Trump has mastered a truly extraordinary feat: while many of his Tweets and public statements are whiny complaints about exaggerated or wholly imaginary sleights, he has nonetheless convinced his supporters that his sense of victimization is actually a testimony to his “masculine” strength. Given all of that, Trump represents a kind of absurd ideal of Socrates’ understanding of the poet. Reworking Shelley, he’s the unacknowledged poet of the US, embodying the worst aspects of American culture and history: hyperindividualist, proudly anti-intellectual and anti-rational, violent racialist.
And that’s why, ultimately, poetry can do nothing to stop Trump. Of course we should raise our voices to oppose the Trump administration at every turn. Poetry is an engagement with the world around us, an expression of the head, heart, guts, and genitals, so of course we should voice our rage, disgust, and horror at the electoral college victory of a racist, misogynist, ill-informed, would-be autocrat. But at the same time we should never believe the comforting delusion that poetry can change one damn thing in this country. I’ve been calling both of my senators and my representative at least once a week. I’ve been writing emails and snail-mail to reporters and columnists who seem to sanitize Trump’s lies and corruption. I’ll be attending the Million Woman March in Washington DC next week. And I’ve written, and will continue to write poems about Trump. It’s possible and even likely that my letters, phone calls, and attendance at protests will make no practical difference. But those minor actions have a much better chance of effecting political change in this country than poetry ever could. He has politicized poetry in a way we never could.
 “Politics as Poetry, or why the Trump Campaign Understands Poetry Better than the Language Poets” http://dispatchespoetry.com/articles/commentary/2016/12/953