I’m probably in the minority on this among my poet friends but it’s really bugging me: I think contemporary American poetry is diminished by the number of poems about Donald Trump I’m seeing in the latest issues of various literary journals. I’m not interested in calling out any particular poet or journal; I’ll leave that to Trump’s next undisciplined and embarrassing tweet. But here’s the problem . . .
Trump has been president for four weeks; he hasn’t even been on the national political scene for more than 18 months, and he didn’t emerge as a formidable contender for the White House until maybe a year ago. That means in most cases these poems couldn’t have been conceived more than 12 months ago, give or take, no less gone through many drafts or revisions. I don’t know who exactly it was that advised leaving a new poem in a drawer for a year without looking at it, then taking it out to see what you may have on your hands. But it’s good advice. Only then can you objectively evaluate your own work, and in almost every case, the objectivity one only achieves with the passage of time makes the new poem’s flaws glaringly obvious, and revision begins. How can a poem about Trump conceived before he even became president possibly have gone through such a process?
I felt exactly this way when Galway Kinnell’s poem “When the Towers Fell” appeared in The New Yorker a year after the 9-11 attacks. There was no way to have achieved an objective distance from that atrocity within 12 months of its occurrence, and therefore no way to process it meaningfully into art. Not yet. Kinnell’s poem, and indeed these Trump poems popping up now in a variety of journals, could have benefited from the patient scrutiny that yields great literature.
The urgency of this moment in our politics demands that poets–and editors, for that matter–practice that patience and discipline more rigorously than ever before. I know we all are in a hasty and emotional rush to have something to say about the strange and unruly moment we’re living through, but that is exactly why we, and perhaps most of all our poets, should guard against becoming unruly ourselves. Literary journals are not blogs.