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Redeemed by Poets

The wretched state of public discourse cries out for poetic grace.



I was a high-school English teacher in 2001, the year Billy Collins was appointed U.S. poet laureate. Teaching was the hardest job I ever had—harder than digging trenches, sheet-rocking ceilings or selling door-to-door. That's because most of my students didn't like reading such novels as The Scarlet Letter, and they recoiled from poetry. I tried my best to win them over. I introduced poetry by Nevada cowboys. I had them read Paul Fleischman's melodic poems for two voices. I played recordings of Carl Sandburg. I invoked the meter of Anglo-Saxon poetry in talking about rap, Eminem and Run-DMC. And I put Collins' website, "Poetry 180," into practice.

Collins launched "Poetry 180" with high-school classrooms in mind. He posted 180 poems—one for every day of the school year—and encouraged teachers to read the poems aloud without any follow-up discussion. "Hearing a poem every day, especially well-written, contemporary poems that students do not have to analyze, might convince students that poetry can be an understandable, painless and even eye-opening part of their everyday experience," he wrote.

That's what I did: I opened every class by reading one of the 180 poems. It proved to be painless. Was it transformative? Did the kids develop a taste for poetry? Not really. But they listened, and every now and then, one of of them asked for a printed copy of the day's poem.

My days of wine and roses and Poetry 180 are on my mind for two reasons. First, April arrives next week ushering in National Poetry Month, the world's largest literary event. Second, the wretched state of public discourse cries out for poetic grace. Our president recycles playground language—"loser," "stupid," and "moron"—in his public pronouncements. His detractors respond in kind with "liar," "narcissist" and "incompetent." Both sides would be redeemed by poetry. I don't mean a bawdy limerick about Stormy Daniels or an ode to Fox & Friends. I mean the deft touch of a poet like Alexander Pope smoothing the jagged edges of partisan rhetoric. How about "a brain of feathers and a heart of lead" in the Oval Office instead of a "racist?" Pope could also be used by apologists like Kellyanne Conway when Trump's lying is assailed: "And, after all, what is a lie? 'Tis but the truth in a masquerade." Isn't that better spin than "alternate facts"?

To spin is to distort, but "poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted," wrote Percy Bysshe Shelley. Beauty is too much to expect from Washington's funhouse mirrors, and the Capitol is rife with Rumpelstiltskins spinning straw into gold. I think of lines by Emily Dickinson: "Tell all the truth but tell it slant/ Success in circuit lies." Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders is more dissembler than spinmeister. Her combative style is on display in televised sessions as reporters are "nosing to the scent" like a pack of hounds. Their frustration with her is apparent. No doubt they would appreciate E.E. Cummings' line: "There is some shit I will not eat."

The White House is like a blender with the lid off, writes Maureen Dowd in The New York Times. The well-documented turmoil recalls a line from W.B. Yeats: "Things fall apart; the center cannot hold." My congressman, Chris Stewart, likens the White House to the movie Caddyshack with Trump channeling Al Czervik, Rodney Dangerfield's obstreperous character. Truth be told, Stewart has become as unlikeable as Czervik. His recent appearances on cable-TV news shows—parroting right-wing talking points about the CIA, NSA and FBI—put me off. So much so I began drafting a vitriolic email to him, predicting his ouster in the next election. He probably gets a lot of email like that. How much better to borrow from A.E. Housman: "You may be good for something, but you are not good for me./ Oh, go where you are wanted, for you are not wanted here" (in Congressional District 2).

My modification of Housman signals opportunity for the Geeks Who Drink trivia competitions in Salt Lake City bars: a poetry category in which famous but altered lines are matched with the poets who composed the originals. Like these:

•Human kind cannot bear very much reality TV. (Eliot)

•Quoth the raven-haired Nikki Haley, "Nevermore." (Poe)

•Fools rush in where angels fear to tweet. (Pope)

•Look on my works, ye mighty NRA, and despair. (Shelley)

•One could do worse than be a swinger. (Frost)

Immigration is a subject ripe for poetic expression if for no other reason than Emma Lazarus' poem on the Statue of Liberty frames the issue: "Give me your tired, your poor. Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore." The president disagrees. During his recent inspection of wall prototypes, Trump pronounced some of them formidable enough to deter even the "professional mountain climbers" seeking to leave Mexico for the U.S. As the cameras panned the hulking sections of a border wall, Robert Frost called out to me: "Something there is that doesn't love a wall."

Backers of National Poetry Month have designated April 26 as Poem in Your Pocket day. They want you to pick a poem, carry it with you and share it at work, school or #pocketpoem. I choose Tennyson's "Ulysses" because it is about guys like me, "made weak by time and fate" (and teaching), who nevertheless are "strong in will/ to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."

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