Still, Poetry Will Rise

The aftermath of the 2016 election has found many Americans seeking solace—and wisdom—in verse. The editor of Poetry magazine has some ideas why.

J. M. W. Turner's 1842 painting, "Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth"  (Tate)

When it was announced, early on Wednesday morning, that Donald Trump was also President-Elect Donald Trump, a poem went viral on social media. “Differences of Opinion,” the British poet Wendy Cope’s sharp evisceration of mansplaining, spoke, in its spare nine lines, to a political moment that has been defined in large part by a tense relationship both with women and with facts.

“Campaign in poetry; govern in prose,” the old adage goes. This moment, though, has in many ways flipped that idea: The 2016 presidential campaign was decidedly lacking in poetry. Yet in its aftermath, as Americans consider the contours of their new government, they are, often, turning to poems: to Cope and her gallows humor. To Maya Angelou and her songs of self-love. To Adam Zagajewski. To Adrienne Rich. To Riz MC. Vox, on Wednesday afternoon, published a post headlined, “Feeling terrible right now? Maybe some poetry will help.” The Guardian had one listing “poems to counter the election fallout—and beyond.” The Huffington Post, for its part, offered “18 Compassionate Poems To Help You Weather Uncertain Times.”

There are logistical reasons for all that, certainly. Poetry’s succinct form often means that it lends itself especially well to being screen-shot and retyped and then shared on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram. But there are deeper reasons, too, why poetry is having, as it were, A Moment. I spoke with Don Share, the editor of Poetry magazine, about the role poems have been playing for people across the political spectrum as they’ve wrestled with the results of the 2016 election—and of the role poems might continue to play for us as we move forward. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Megan Garber: Why do you think it is that poetry seems to be resonating so deeply at this particular moment?

Don Share: Well, it’s always been speaking to people—and it’s always been speaking to people about the kinds of things they’re taking about now, because one of the things poetry is really good at is anticipating things that need discussion. Poets are kind of like—it’s a bad metaphor, but—canaries in a coal mine. They have a sense for things that are in the air. Partly because that’s what they do—they think about things that are going on—but partly because they take their own personal experience and see how that fits in with what they see in the world. A lot of people might think that poetry is very abstract, or that it has to do with having your head in the clouds, but poets, actually, walk on the earth. They’re grounded, feet-first, pointing forward. They’re moving around and paying attention at every moment.

And a poet wakes up and thinks, “You know, anything is possible.” They imagine things before they’re possible. The reach and power of the imagination means that poetry will always be with us, that it will always be important, that it will always be part of what goes along with our culture, our politics, our personal feelings and relationships.

And, at the same time, when people are under pressure of any kind, they turn to poetry. That’s why poetry is with us at the most important occasions in our lives: weddings, funerals, anniversaries. When Kobe Bryant retired, the first thing he seems to have done was write a poem. That didn’t surprise me one bit: Sooner or later, we’ll find that poetry has been waiting for us. You get this feeling that people can call on the poets when they need to, and that’s a great moment for poets—when they have an audience because we need to know how to go about reaching the next day of our lives. And that’s something the poets spend all their time thinking about.

Garber: Do you think, given all that, we’ll see a continued rise in the public’s general interest in poetry—as people keep trying to make sense of the world’s turbulence?

Share: I do, except that I think all times are turbulent—it’s just that they’re turbulent in different ways, and for different people. Poets are always swirling around in the maelstrom, whenever there is one, and in a way we know there always is one. Take everything going on, for just one example, in Syria. Poets have been writing about that forever. And our problems in this country, long before they entered the debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton—the poets were writing about what goes on in Flint, and in Detroit. A poem we published a couple of years ago, Jamaal May’s “There Are Birds Here,” was saying that what the media show us is often the bad side of something, but poets are here to say, “There’s beauty here, there’s life here, there’s brightness, redemption, love for the landscape here—there’s potential here.”

Garber: Are there any other particular poems that seem especially relevant to you right now?

Share: The work of Danez Smith has been shared a lot in the past couple of days. And the work of Ocean Vuong. And of Javier Zamora: He’s writing about how his family, basically, traveled through a desert to get to this country, to get work, and to become citizens, and to become documented. But are there so many more poets. And they are all coming from many kinds of backgrounds, and in a way they are the fabric of the country. And they’re being heard from. And that’s in part because they’re speaking to what’s going on right now—and they’re good at it.

Garber: It’s strikes me how fluid, in all this, the lines are between “politics” and “everything else.” We have a habit, in our discussions and in our thinking, of segmenting politics off from the other realities of the world: Politics here, Art there. Politics here, Culture there. This isn’t a question specifically about poetry, but I’m curious: Do you think those categories offer a valid way of approaching things? Or do you think, given the world’s messiness, that it might be better to talk about political life in more holistic terms?

Share: I think we should. It’s interesting that you have that feeling, as so many people do, because it actually applies to poetry. Because if we think about politics as its own realm, and assume that it doesn’t affect us—we’ll soon find out that we are mistaken. And poetry is like that, too. Obviously, for people who don’t spend a lot of time reading poetry, they might think of it as something that exists in a kind of corner of experience—and that’s okay; it’s natural. But the reality is that poetry isn’t “somewhere else.” That’s kind of why it exists. And poetry and politics are inevitable, yet strange, bedfellows. Because they’re both trying to address this basic human question: Why are things the way they are? Why aren’t they different? Why aren’t they better?

People who are poets are often very political; they’re often activists. We talk about political poetry as if it’s a kind of effusion about something going on, but the truth is, the heritage of poetry includes politicians. I mean, Yeats was a politician. Our greatest poets, really, have been active in what goes on in the world. And great or unknown, poets are participating in what makes a difference in the world. If you perceive that politics is a way of making a difference, and you engage in it, then you can get something done. And the same can be said of poetry.

I think that’s why the Obama administration had Inaugural poets. It was very important for Obama to put a poet in front of millions of people. Because politics is one way for him to express his worldview, but he was aware that poetry is a worldview in a different kind of language, one that gets through to people in places that politics can’t always reach. Sometimes we feel alienated from our politicians, and that becomes itself a political issue. And poetry works through and around that—poetry gets to us without our even realizing it’s happening. But it also feels immediate. And that’s, I think, why it means something to people.

Garber: I’ve been thinking a lot, in the past months, about the basic idea of empathy, and the way it factors into (and also, sometimes, has explicitly failed to factor into) the American political system. I figure I know the broad answer to this, but: What role do you think poetry can play when it comes to encouraging empathy?

Share: What poetry does is it puts us in touch with people who are different from ourselves—and it does so in a way that isn’t violent. It’s a way of listening. When you’re reading a poem, you’re listening to what someone else is thinking and feeling and saying. It’s not a debate, where somebody punches back at it. You have to think before you speak. You have to think before you write. You have to think while you’re reading. And poetry keeps the intensity and the passion of a point of view, but in a forum where people aren’t hurting each other. It says, “Here’s what it’s like from my point of view.” All you have to do is listen to the poet.

And, in that, you don’t have to be anything other than what you are. The poem is a catalyst where you’re bringing two different kinds of people together. And at its best, when it works, there’s a kind of spark, and everyone comes away illuminated by what the spark has ignited.