On Tuesday, March 23, Boston College’s Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy hosted “The Political Life of Poetry: Reimagining the Culture of Democracy” with American poet Ed Hirsch.
Hirsch, who has won awards both for his poetry and literary critiques, first spoke with the Clough Center in 2014 on the topic, but due to substantive developments in American politics in the years since both Hirsch and the Clough Center decided to revisit the discussion.
For many readers, poetry is looked at as just another tedious and unimportant part of high school English classes. However, poets often use their work to express their observations and beliefs regarding society’s relation to itself and political life.
Hirsch opened his discussion with a comparison of three “viruses:” the current COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on society, the resurgence and increased prevalence of individual and systemic racism that can no longer be ignored, and “a sustained authoritarian threat to democracy” seen in the Trump administration’s policies and the rise of extreme populism.
In response to these, Hirsch took time during the lockdown to find how American poetry looked at individual and collective relationships with politics, and he gave a few key examples.
The first poet discussed was Walt Whitman and his concept of “Democratic Vistas,” or a promise and ideal of American government that must be strived towards.
American poetry has greatly discussed this concept and especially how Americans often have failed to live up to this ideal of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all American citizens. Hirsch likened this to a family quarrel, where though a dialogue may become intense, it ultimately leads all involved to the right conclusion.
For example, Whitman’s inclusion of many groups choosing democracy and industriousness in “I Hear America Singing” did not go far enough for Langston Hughes due to its lack of mentioning individuals of color.
In “I, Too,” Hughes relates Whitman’s work to the black experience in the United States not as antagonistic but as a brother who will be included in the wider “song” of America. The experience is, from Hughes’s perspective, one of moving from eating in the kitchen to being invited to the dinner table, not because of one’s hard work but the shame others will feel for excluding individuals as free and beautiful as themselves solely due to the color of their skin.
Much of American poetry, according to Hirsch, is a series of revisions to include other groups into the wider American story.
In a similar fashion to Hughes and Whitman, Robert Hayden’s “Middle Passage” combined the groundbreaking collage-style imagism of T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” and used it to portray the story of slavery in America and the struggles of those forced to travel away from their homes, chained together in crowded ships for months on end.
Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” compared the Statue of Liberty to the Colossus of Rhodes, showing America not as an exclusionary imperial power but a welcoming and caring nation – all during a time where tensions regarding immigration were running high and nativism was the status quo.
These poems offer examples of what Hirsch calls “horizontal issues,” focusing on individuals’ relationships with society; “vertical issues” can be seen, meanwhile, in the works of Emily Dickenson, where an individual analyzes their relationship with themself and the metaphysical in a way that has social repercussions.
For both of these topics, Hirsch stated that authenticity and originality were the most crucial aspects of the poems.
“I believe poetry goes completely wrong when it gets prescriptive,” Hirsch said.
Poetry, especially in the American tradition, needs to make an individual voice clear and unique, rather than focus on how ideas ought to be said. In order for poetry to be “art and justice,” it needs to start from one’s personal experiences and beliefs.