Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, was the winner of the 1971 Nobel Prize for Literature, chartered an old ship in 1938 to resettle some 2,000 Spanish refugees who were living in squalid camps in Paris, in his home land. They were fighters for the Republicans in the lost Spanish Civil War and had fled to France to escape persecution from the Fascist Franco government. Like Ernest Hemingway, Neruda was on the side of the Spanish Republicans that grouped the best writers of the time. And as the Chilean emissary to the Paris refugees, Neruda said his work for the Spanish refugees in Paris was the most important one he did in his entire lifetime to serve humanity. A poet committed to fighting the fascist overloads to create a better world.
There are countries where poets are on the very top of the national pedestal, high up in the pantheon of their heroes. A 19th century Cuban poet, Jose Marti, is honoured as a martyr and recognised as father of the Cuban revolution.
Across the globe and through centuries, poetry has been a force of national good. The distinct but negative character of a country going through convulsions and tumult is this: the country’s leader loathes poets and poetry as the purpose of the two is to serve humanity.
And that cultural wasteland that HL Mencken precisely warned Americans about indeed took place in the four years of Donald Trump. Instead of lofty words and soaring lines that prop up the spirit of the world’s oldest democracy, the most remembered lines of the recently departed Trump presidency remain “grab them by the pussy”.
The traditional sanctity and solemnity of words was so totally disregarded during the last four years that Trump ruled America, according to fact checkers, uttered outright falsehoods of more than 3500 times in a presidency of less than 1,500 days.
Trump had a torturous affair with the written word. He governed through his tweets, mangled sentences, used all caps to telegraph his base urges and dark impulses and deliberately stripped words of their meaning. Remember “Covfefe?”
On inauguration day of Joe Biden Jr, a staunch Catholic leader, as the new president on January 20th, 2020 America breathed with relief. Complete well-crafted sentences are back. Plus, glorious poetry. The star at the Biden inaugural came in the form of a 22-year-old African American poet Amanda Gorman, the current young poet laureate of the US, who wrote and read her piece The Hill We Climb. Part of the poem read:
When day comes, we ask ourselves:
Where can we find light, in this never-ending shade
The loss we carry, a sea we must wade.
Then, this passionate call for noble striving and unity,
but to what stands before us,
We close the divide because we know, to put our
Future first, we must put our differences aside.
We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one
Another, we seek harm to none and harmony for all.
Just four years ago, the theme was “America carnage,” which summed up the wreck that four years of the Trump presidency left in the US.
Now it is about finding light and hope.
There had been poetry at inaugurals before. Robert Frost at the Kennedy inaugural. A gay Latino poet at Obama’s second. Maya Angelou at Clinton’s.
But on January 20th, 2021, poetry at the Biden inaugural took an extra significant meaning. The poet and her words met the moment.
Suruwa B Wawa Jaiteh