Poetry as a Check against Tyranny

Former National Poet Laureate Rita Dove


I find it fascinating that African American poets, descendants of people whose suffering in American history rivals only that of Native Americans, write some of the most upbeat poems about America. If you are looking for a poetic uplift these days, check out Rita Dove’s “American Smooth,” from her collection by that name. She discusses her poetry in a recent Salon article.

The collection, as one review has it,

pay[s] homage to our kaleidoscopic cultural heritage; from the glorious shimmer of an operatic soprano to Bessie Smith’s mournful wail; from paradise lost to angel food cake; from hotshots at the local shooting range to the Negro jazz band in World War I whose music conquered Europe before the Allied advance. Like the ballroom-dancing couple of the title poem, smiling and making the difficult seem effortless, Dove explores the shifting surfaces between perception and intimation.

Here’s that ball-room dancing couple:

American Smooth

By Rita Dove

We were dancing—it must have
been a foxtrot or a waltz,
something romantic but
requiring restraint,
rise and fall, precise
execution as we moved
into the next song without
stopping, two chests heaving
above a seven-league
stride—such perfect agony,
one learns to smile through,
ecstatic mimicry
being the sine qua non
of American Smooth.
And because I was distracted
by the effort of
keeping my frame
(the leftward lean, head turned
just enough to gaze out
past your ear and always
smiling, smiling),
I didn’t notice
how still you’d become until
we had done it
(for two measures?
four?)—achieved flight,
that swift and serene
before the earth
remembered who we were
and brought us down.  

Responding to interviewer David Masciotra about the collection, Dove replies,

What it is that I love about this country is that it is a very strange democracy. This country, for better or worse, has managed to subsume many different cultures, and make something uniquely America. In American Smooth, I tried to bring forth how so many different music trends have resulted in American music – music from the ’40s and ’50s, blues, jazz, the African, the British. Everything comes together to give us a remarkable, vibrant, malleable form of expression, and it is truly unique. That opportunity has always been present.

The dance calls for us to put on a good face (“ecstatic mimicry,” “always smiling, smiling”) as we work through the agony. The payoff is moments of “achieved flight” before earthly reality reasserts itself. Hope lies in those moments:

When I was a child there were limitations. I’m a black woman. Yet, I still thought there was a way to be me. There was hope. There was a way to make it. It sounds silly to call it the pioneer spirit, but in a way it is: “Let’s just go out there, and see if we can make a new town.” The history of immigrants coming into this country, and their hopes being made part of the American fabric. It takes time, but these things are eventually considered American. Driving from Virginia to Chicago recently, I thought about how all these geographically diverse, disparate climates and terrains could maintain togetherness as a country. Despite all the bloodshed, up until recently, this story was very successful.

And then, thinking of the recent election,

Now, I’m not so sure.

What worries Dove is Donald Trump’s attacks on language. Dove contrasts his articulation with Barack Obama’s:

I agree with the assessment that language is being reduced, especially in comparison with Barack Obama, who was quite eloquent and understood the value and effectiveness of language in all of its registers. He could not only be eloquent, as a leader, in a high, classical speech manner, but he also knew how to get down. That is how you reach people, and make them realize that a leader speaks their language — to demonstrate an understanding of the intimations and syncopations of a common, but elevated language.

Human beings have the language we can write down, which means it can be communicated to other human beings who do not even see the original author. Now, we have this gift, and for it to be reduced, also reduces our capacity to progress and develop. Language is now being reduced to the level of an undeveloped 2-year-old. Everything is “tremendous” or “disastrous.” This drives me mad, because once you have a limited vocabulary for articulation, it blinds your vision. You are no longer able to describe that which exists outside the borders of that cage of language you have put yourself into. What the arts do, especially literature, is to try to push those borders, so that we can always say more, and therefore do more. That expands your consciousness. It sounds hippie to say that, but it is true. If we don’t have a language to describe an experience, it is almost as if we cannot really experience it.

Responding to reported plans to cut or eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities and Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Dove observes,

The first thing that goes when a government becomes a tyranny are words. You take the power for people to communicate, because then it becomes easier to manipulate them. If it gets to the point where there is no more funding for the arts or humanities, we are headed to a dark place. I never thought that I would see this country that I really love turn so rapidly into a frightening place.

To push against this tyranny, Dove says that poetry doesn’t have to be political. It can, for instance, be about dance. Simply by doing justice to complexity, by containing multitudes (an allusion to Whitman), poetry strikes a blow for human freedom. We become larger, not smaller:

I love that comment: “Poetry is not a bumper sticker.” In certain ways it is the exact opposite of a bumper sticker, even though they may share something like conciseness. What a bumper sticker does is encapsulates a certain sentiment that makes you feel very safe. You can look at it, and go, “oh, well that clicks.” You feel like now you know something. Whether it is a political bumper sticker or a joke, it makes you feel like you are on top of things, you can feel good about it, ourselves, and move on.

What a poem does is open something up inside. This is also a good feeling. A poem is an experience, because when you experience, it allows you to become larger. It is not something that is quantifiable, and it is not something that you can encapsulate with the closure that you seek. That frightens some people.

But I contend that we are born curious. We are born naked in front of the world, and we want to enlarge ourselves and discover more. We lose that curiosity as we grow older, and become afraid. If we would open ourselves to poetry, it would teach us about ourselves, and other people, and enable us to feel more. There are poems that I love that, over the years, have grown in meaning to me, or suddenly I see a different side of them. So, poetry is a living, breathing entity.

Even poetry about horrors, Dove concludes, can give us hope. Asked whether poetry is “an optimistic enterprise,” Dove replies,

I think that ultimately it is. I know that when I write, even if I’m writing about a massacre — something horrific and sad — whenever I write and I get to the point that I feel it is working, I am deliriously happy. When I read poems that are about something horrific, sometimes something in me lifts, because if we, as human beings, can take that which is most ugly and find creative ways to describe it, that tells us that we have a power to manage the chaos.

Poetry is a resource to keep the light burning in dark times. Keep reminding yourself of that.

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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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