Pragmatism trumps poetry every time. We have no majesty, none of the grace notes of language and no call for a poet to memorialize events, celebratory or tragic.
But wait. Natasha Trethewey, the newest poet laureate, wants to change that. By moving to Washington this month from Atlanta, where she has been an English professor at Emory University, she hopes to start a conversation about poetry and how it enriches the lives even of the political class.
"Poetry is more diplomatic than we ever are in our everyday lives," she told an interviewer when she was first appointed. "It's the most humane repository of our feelings and thoughts, our most humane and dignified thoughts."
Well, we could use a little dignity and a little empathy. Almost everybody in Washington is angry, selfish and cursed with an ego the size of a Buick. The old Congress is out. The new one has already been here a week, and it hasn't changed a thing.
Shelley described poets as "unacknowledged legislators of the world," but our legislators, acknowledged or otherwise, are no poets. Nor does the president lead. Barack Obama nominates Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense in the "bipartisan tradition," although he's widely regarded by Republicans as a renegade. But that'll show us.
Can poetry help us with healing, or is that hopelessly naive? Trethewey knows a little about what it takes to get over a horrific wound. Her stepfather shot and killed her mother when she was 19 years old. She was born in Gulfport, Miss., of mixed-race parents. Her father was white, and her mother was black. They divorced when she was 6, and when she walked down the street with her mother in Atlanta, strangers thought she was with her maid. She grapples with the "oppositions" in her life.
Our leaders and politicians ought to learn to deal with the oppositions in their lives, too. But the battles in Washington look too ominous for poetic expression without a poet like T.S. Eliot and his hollow men.
"The truth of poetry is not the truth of history," said Philip Levine, our last poet laureate. Wordsworth thought poetry springs from "emotion recollected in tranquility," and there's little reflection and absolutely no tranquility in the nation's capital. A little attention to language could help.
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