I. Notes Toward an Inaugural Poem
At this critical juncture in American, and human, transition, I tried to envision what words might be said to mark the 2016 American presidential election. The words were formulated before the votes had been tallied, but inherent in their formulation—purely a theoretical exercise—lay a tacit presumption of a Democratic victory. Not that I was confident Hillary Clinton would triumph over her Republican opponent (indeed I was not; though she prevailed in the popular vote count while failing in the Electoral College). Rather, in my lifetime, only Democratic inaugurees have requisitioned a ceremonial poem: Republicans have run on explicitly anti-literary platforms, and when elected, sought to weaken if not destroy the humanities in every way possible. My exercise, posed as a self-challenge, was hypothetical: I knew I would never submit it to the Democratic party organization for consideration, not believing the words themselves acceptable or satisfactory to the mysterious power brokers that organize such events. Often the poems selected seem abstruse and barely connected to the national scene—the best, in my estimation, having been that presented by Maya Angelou after the 1992 election of William Jefferson Clinton. Today, I harbor few hopes, either for human culture or the human species; yet, even in the face of impossible odds, it is the poet’s job to come up with words appropriate to the situation. These inadequate words hardly fill the bill, and, attempting to be moderately pragmatic, fail to be sufficiently radical. Yet they needed to be said, or I would have dishonored my Muse—something no dedicated poet could permit.
These times in which the center does not hold,
Let us invent for peace new paradigms,
In amity to build new pathways bold.
The voices of division long have had
Ascendency, borne by subversive means,
But conscience knows to tell the good from bad,
And right from wrong, in various sundry scenes.
Long has man’s dominance of nature’s world
Sacked, sacrificed, enslaved, pillaged and looted,
And all of life into a future hurled
Uncertain and precarious, no man rooted.
Nature’s abundance merits more than plunder,
Diversities of life not to be pruned,
Vistas of beauty nevermore to sunder,
As landscapes, air and water, all get ruined.
No, let us work together, men and women,
To build society that’s true and just,
Respectful of this world we hold in common,
Because it is our birthright, and we must.
Too long have men of ignorance cleared away
What blocked their path, albeit habitat
Or native norms and people—to betray
The heart’s highest ideals, and love thereat.
Too often, hierarchies have been built
In segregating some to be outcaste,
Putting aside the reckoning of guilt,
Imputing to some other shame misplaced.
The wealth of races, and the sexual map
Are bounties to be celebrated, cherished,
Diversity a treasure, not a trap,
To be enjoyed till prejudice has perished.
We must, however, be of one accord,
United in this purpose: each to each
We are each other’s bulwark, each man’s word
Sacred, none to besmirch, all hearts to reach.
Today let us be dedicated to
The proposition, all created equal,
As men and women, we must build and do
A world of justice, now and without sequel,
For if, this world upon a tipping point,
We cannot rein in excess, rein in greed,
Calamity that gallops out of joint
Will sunder life’s joys that from life proceed.
Upon the tipping point, upon the brink,
Let us have faith, and cultivate the goodness,
In one another, in ourselves, to think
A way from madness, curbing lust and rudeness.
Let us renew the kindness and restraint
Propounded by our forebears, men and women
Who taught the ways of virtue free from taint,
For love of good or fear of evil omen.
Let science be our guide, not superstition,
And if we must err, let our erring be
Upon the side of tolerance, not proscription,
Toward gentleness, and not mobocracy,
And, insofar that we may do so, let
Us show the breadth and depth of human mercy
Toward all nature’s inhabitants, and set
Our appetites toward vegan ways diversely.
For us, we mark a change as monumental,
Yet continuity persists, in love,
And evolution may be accidental
But love endures, and should be good enough.
II. Toward “Inner Emigration”
With Republican ascendency, “humane” values become especially imperiled. For the poet, it calls for a “recusal”—much as I foretold in my 2011 book of that name—or withdrawal from the heightened political scene. Freedom of expression becomes moot in the autocratic state, and with the back of the American system largely broken, a new route must be charted—a task to be left to men (and women) of action.
Illusions on the character of man,
Especially of my countrymen, and so
Although I weep, and weep the while I can,
I know that my ability to act
And even to preserve, is circumscribed
And limited: a mordant wall of fact
Prevents, to be neither cajoled nor bribed.
This is an age when men take ready cash,
Enslaving of their brothers if they might,
Willing to transgress all taboos—no lash
Hampering lust’s inexorable appetite.
So let it be: let me retrench, regroup.
I harbored little hope, and even winning
I knew a further distance man must stoop,
So thus a loss and end is a beginning.
Let me eke on as I have done. Let thou
Preserve my spirit, if to do is game,
Or let me perish, as thy will allow—
In either case the end remains the same.
Let me believe in honor, love, and justice,
Though men dispute this claim before my eyes,
And even in defeat consoled to trust this:
That such a triad in mine own heart lies.
The politics of men who struggle for
Supremacy, in serving war’s false idols,
But lead to an immersion in more war,
And into each one’s heart corruption sidles.
Lord, mankind’s fallen state is an old story—
If it must reach conclusion, let it come;
For thine remains the power and the glory,
Men know not what they do, and we are dumb.