On Thursday, the Poetry Foundation, in association with the Poetry Society of America, is hosting a timely event in Chicago titled "Red, White & Blue: Poets on Politics." It's part of a national series being held in several American cities, with a stated aim of exploring the role of "politics in the literary landscape."
Given the week that Mitt Romney just endured, it begs a question: Does the Republican nominee for President of the United States have current need of a poet? And if so, and with all due respect to the rhetorical stylings of Clint Eastwood, could he find a conservative one?
Surely, a poet would be useful. Mitt Romney did not apologize for the content of his secretly taped observations to donors that appeared in the leaked video that made so much news — he has stood by the substance of his remarks about the large percentage of Americans who he said were dependent on government programs and thus unlikely to join his campaign — but he did allow that the comments were "inelegantly stated." Cultural critic Donald Trump went further. Although also defending the factual truth of Romney's statement, he called it "inartful."
There were echoes, of course, of a similar statement by Barack Obama in 2008 after his infamous comment, also at a fundraiser, about small-time Pennsylvanians who, he said, "cling to guns and religion." Thereafter, a back-pedaling Obama said he "didn't say it as well as I should have."
Inelegant; inartful; not saying it well. These are all qualities that poets, who often struggle to define their utility in a brutal marketplace, are generally relied upon to possess. Sure, their kissing cousins, gifted political speechwriters, generally suffice in everyday moments of rhetorical import. But although the case that the art of rhetoric has, by historical standards, been woefully lacking in the current campaign might be arguable — if you have a tin ear, anyway — the events of the last week should leave no possible doubt that political candidates invariably leave even their quotidian writers behind when they think they're just preaching to the fat cats in the choir.
That's a big mistake. Now that a video-capable phone lurks under every chair, artful, elegant expression at all times, and not just in big speeches, is more crucial than ever. The Romney episode — and, in fairness to the man, he was clearly talking about election tactics, even if the Democrats see the comments as a blueprint of his potential presidency — surely reveals that the mode of expression is every last bit as important as that which is being expressed. Maybe more important, politically speaking. In politics, mere dubious facts don't ignite the media, or capture the imagination of the fact-laden undecided voter, with the same potency as exceptionally elegant, or pathetically inartful, expression. Politicians must be very afraid of the crudely put. So, is there a poet for Romney?
The world of poetry is, of course, a liberal bastion. The principal opposition to liberal-leaning poets is not so much conservative (in the right-wing sense) poets as those who make an essentially aesthetic argument that poets have no business sticking their noses into politics. But because the line between art and politics is clearly impossible to define, that argument doesn't come with much logic. Especially since it's a free country, even for poets.
Ideological conservatives interested in poetry claim, with good foundation, the great T.S. Eliot as one of their own. In college, even Obama reportedly wrote that he preferred Eliot's rigorous "kind of conservatism" to "bourgeois liberalism." Some on the right make a claim for Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was big on duty, and on the crucial societal role played by what Republicans now would probably call "the job creators." But although eminently quotable (well, in Eliot's case, kinda), neither Eliot nor Coleridge are available for politicians headed to fundraisers.
Some conservative poets, like Boston-based poet Aaron Goldstein, might be worth a look by the former governor of Massachusetts. Goldstein has written many poems inspired by the Obama presidency. They're not exactly even-handed, but then poets are under no such obligation. Some lines are witty (Goldstein has a fine sense of humor) like "Mr. President, your talk in Turkey/ Turned America's shining beacon murky" and there's another Goldstein poem, "All Barack and No Bite," that takes a witheringly canine form of attack. But while Goldstein might be good for attack-dog offense, defense is more Romney's current problem.
Therefore, perhaps a more useful collection of poets can be found in the 2006 anthology "The Conservative Poets," published by the University of Evansville Press and replete with such names as Marion Montgomery, Ralph McInery, Frederick Turner and editor William Baer, a formalist believer in metrical verse and a poet who, like Romney, sees great purpose in the world. Many of the poems in this volume are a good read, evoking some of that Morning in America-style rhetoric that Romney, more a businessman than a poet, so clearly needs, and quickly. Alas both Montgomery and McInery died not too long ago, but Baer, a professor at the University of Evansville in Indiana, a state Romney must win, remains very much alive.
"Timing's everything," Baer wrote in his poem "Snowflake." "The vapor rises high in the sky, tossing to and fro, then freezes, suddenly, and crystallizes into a perfect flake of miraculous snow."
Nice. Of course, when doors are closed, money is flowing and the poet is left outside in the cold, that same gaseous substance can melt into a dangerously botched day on the campaign trail.