Poems for Resisting Trump


New York Times columnist Roger Cohen is suggesting two poems for surviving the upcoming year of Donald Trump: Rudyard Kipling’s “If” and Langston Hughes’s “Harlem.” Both poems are about getting battered although they have different takes on the matter. “If” calls for us to stand up and fight back, “Harlem” warns us what will happen if we don’t.

In his December 22 column, the Cohen weaves Kipling’s poem into a list of Trump’s excesses. I’d like to quote the entire column because it is a perfect illustration of how, by systematically applying a poem to an urgent issue, one can penetrate to its core. By the time you’ve finished reading the column, you’re convinced that Kipling had someone very much like Trump in mind when he wrote it. Here are some examples, with the Kipling lines appearing in quotation marks:

If this is America, with a cabinet of terrorized toadies genuflecting to the Great Leader, a vice president offering a compliment every 12 seconds to Mussolini’s understudy, and a White House that believes in “alternative facts,” then it is time to “keep your head when all about you are losing theirs.”

If this is America, where the Great Leader threatens allies who do not fall in lineretweets the anti-Muslim racism of British fascistsinsults the Muslim mayor of Londondreams up a terror attack in Swedeninvents a call from the Mexican presidentclaims the Russia story is a “total fabrication,” then you will have to “bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools.”


If, beyond every abuse, this is yet America, where the Great Leader’s administration recommends that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention not use the words “fetus,” “transgender,” “science-based” or “diversity” (but it may still, according to a New Yorker cartoon, be able to use the word “moron”), and climate change is no longer a strategic threat (or even an admissible term in government circles), then it is time to heed the poet’s admonition: “Being lied about, don’t deal in lies.”

And my favorite, as it calls for us to fight for this land we love:

If this is America, where the Great Leader wants you to believe that 2+2=5, and would usher you down his rabbit hole, and struggles to find in himself unequivocal condemnation of neo-Nazis, and you recall perhaps the words of Hannah Arendt, “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e. the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e. the standards of thought) no longer exist” — if all this you have lived and felt and thought across this beautiful and spacious land, then you must be prepared to “watch the things you gave your life to, broken, and stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools.”

Cohen ends on an upbeat note: we will save our country if we heed the poet’s advice about risking everything for what is important. It is particularly good advice for those on the left who can’t let go of Bernie Sanders losing in the primary or Hillary Clinton in the general:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss.

As a new year approaches, stoicism will prevail, decency will prevail, contestation will prevail, over the Great Leader’s plundering of truth and thought. This is not America. It must be fought for and won back.

If Cohen is feisty and combative in his first end-of-the-year column, he is lyrical in his December 26 piece. Looking down upon the Staten Island ferry, he thinks about all the immigrants who have crossed the Atlantic and arrived in New York in pursuit of the American dream. America’s greatness has always lain in its ability to attract dreamers:

[The ferry’s] brief passage evokes the centuries of American hope invested in this city, seen by so many immigrants for the first time from this expanse of water. Here, suffering, famine and the endless gyre of Old-World conflict were set aside, or at least cushioned by New-World possibility.

At this low point for the United States, when truth itself is mocked from on high, that liberating message is worth recalling. Certainly, no naturalized American, as I am, who has witnessed the rites of passage of people drawn by hope from every corner of the earth to the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, can be indifferent to it.

Langston Hughes wrote poem after poem about the American dream. “Harlem” is his best-known one:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore —
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over —
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

To which Cohen adds,

In 2018, take the time, dear reader, to gaze at the familiar, board the ferry to nowhere — and do not, at risk of an explosion, defer your dreams.

So there you have it—stand strong with the rugged Brit in the cause of justice and truth and stand firm with the sensitive African American to keep the faith. Those are New Year’s resolutions worth making.

Further thought: Cohen, blinded somewhat by his privilege, doesn’t entirely understand Hughes’s poem as he assumes one can choose to defer or not. As the poet sees it, the powerless have only one good choice and that is to explode. He is warning white society what will happen once people of color stop colluding in their oppression.

Entire text of “If”:

If you can keep your head when all about you
   Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
   But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
   Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don’t give way to hating,
   And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise; 
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
   If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
   And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
   Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
   And stoop and build ‘em up with wornout tools; 

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
   And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
   And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
   To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
   Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on”; 

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
   Or walk with kings—nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
   If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run—
   Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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