Andrew A. Nelles/Sun-Times Media
A former editor introduced me to the Poetry Foundation
's Poem of the Day
. His parents were poets—not amateurs who scribbled doggerel on birthday cards, but professionals who published books and taught in a university writing program—and I imagine that for him, poetry was not something that was painstakingly pored over and decoded in a classroom but an especially beautiful and compressed way of expressing complex thoughts and feelings, one that's not incompatible with the language of everyday life. He was a subscriber to the Poem of the Day, a daily e-mail of a selection from the Poetry Foundation's vast archive, and sometimes he would forward poems that seemed particularly appropriate to a time and situation.
(Having poets for parents also gave him a vast and entertaining collection of stories about Poets Behaving Unwisely and a wonderful photo of his father sitting in an armchair holding a can of PBR in one hand and petting a quizzical-looking golden retriever with the other while wearing a rubber gorilla mask.)
In time, I became a subscriber to Poem of the Day, too. It's free and requires absolutely no effort on my part, so I don't feel obligated to read every poem every day. Sometimes I skip them for weeks and move them to a separate folder so I can read them later.
There's usually a logic to the poems that are chosen for Poem of the Day, a connection to seasons or historical anniversaries or current events, like the World Series or Election Day. On Veterans Day last year, which happened to be two days after the election, a veterans-themed poem arrived in my inbox, "The Grand Army of the Republic"
by John Spaulding. It describes the speaker kneeling in the garden as a group of soldiers in blue shirts appears. It ends:
I saw edges of myself being flattened by rain,
could smell the earth too and thought of the years
of rot that made the smell, the rot of my father and his father
and all those who had gone before and how we eat the root
of the earth and then turn into rot ourselves just as
pieces of dirt were grinding away between my teeth and tongue,
my bit of gristle being stirred into earth’s stew.
I began to raise my head and noticed
for the first time the bunting,
red, white, and blue, hung out for the parade.
This, coincidentally, was exactly how I was feeling that day.
The next day's poem was "Poem"
by Muriel Rukeyser, which reads in part:
I lived in the first century of world wars.
Most mornings I would be more or less insane,
The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,
The news would pour out of various devices
Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen. . . .
As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other,
To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile
Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,
Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means
To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,
To let go the means, to wake.
This poem had originally been published in 1968, but it somehow managed to put all my inchoate thoughts about the past few months into words, and I found this articulation comforting, because at least it meant there were
words for what was happening.
A few weeks later, the Poetry Foundation sent out "November, 1806"
by William Wordsworth, which ends:
We shall exult, if they who rule the land
Be men who hold its many blessings dear,
Wise, upright, valiant; not a servile band,
Who are to judge of danger which they fear,
And honour which they do not understand.
And on Thanksgiving, "América"
by Richard Blanco, about a Cuban family who humor an Americanized son by serving turkey and pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving dinner but end up celebrating by drinking rum and coffee and dancing the merengue to a Celia Cruz record.
At that point, I wondered if the Poetry Foundation was, in its own oblique, poetic way, offering commentary on the election, and if this was a considered stance by the organization—if, in fact, it was defying the president-elect with poetry.
The media office put me in touch with Jim Sitar, the senior editor who's in charge of Poem of the Day and who agreed to answer my questions by e-mail. Straightaway he disabused me of the notion that the Foundation was protesting the election through its selections for the Poem of the Day.
"We don't make statements," he wrote, "but good poems often make bold statements and evoke different emotions in readers. We aim to include as many different voices as possible in Poem of the Day. The thoughts and statements of poets in their poems don't reflect an official stance of the organization. Our mission—to discover and celebrate the best poetry and to place it before the largest possible audience—hasn't changed."
I suppose if Sitar had publicly announced that he was choosing poetry to be subversive, it wouldn't be subversive anymore. So I respect that. Though maybe poetry can't help but be subversive. As Sitar put it, "Of course, many poems speak directly to our shared realities and try to make sense of them, but it has to aspire to be something more than rhetoric."
(This is probably also why Nazi Germany was not known for its poetry and why poets in Soviet Russia tended to disappear. And although it's been argued
that Donald Trump is a poet
who doesn't even know it, I don't think any of his works will be showing up as the Poem of the Day anytime soon.)
Over the past few weeks, the Poems of the Day have covered expected territory, like cold weather and impending Christmas. But then there have also been poems like "A Poem for the Cruel Majority"
by Jerome Rothenberg, which begins thus:
The cruel majority emerges!
Hail to the cruel majority!
They will punish the poor for being poor.
They will punish the dead for having died.
Nothing can make the dark turn into light
for the cruel majority.
Nothing can make them feel hunger or terror.
If the Poetry Foundation itself is not protesting, I'm glad it's choosing poetry to do the protesting for it.