Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. Don’t let the bastards grind you down.
—Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
In the wake of the 2016 U.S. election—I was going to write “the election,” which has come to be capitalized in my circles, The Election like The Great Depression or The Moon, but then I remembered that people from other countries and, if I’m lucky, other times will read this post—I, like many of my friends, have struggled with my own depression and anxiety. It does not help that I already struggle with those issues, but I know several people who do not have a history with depression yet are having powerful emotional responses to The Election. The U.S. is likely to be led by a person who condoned hatred and violence during his campaign, whose misogyny and bigotry of all varieties is, unfortunately, being confirmed by his choices for political appointees, and who is against a free and truthful press.
I am not normally a particularly political person. Even now, I don’t remember the names of people the president elect has appointed. But I have read books. A lot of books. I took classes on the Holocaust in college. I taught The Handmaid’s Tale. I have always read science fiction, which is often a thinly veiled commentary on contemporary events, as authors spin out what futures might occur if humanity continues in this way. I have some sense of history, and a great imagination. So I cannot help the fear that envelops me when I think about where things in this country could go from here.
And I can’t stop thinking about where things could go from here. My social media feeds are filled with political articles, analysis, and calls-to-action. I don’t watch television, but every online news source features Trump’s newest ridiculous or dangerous act. Public spaces like restaurants, bars, and airports are filled with tvs tuned to news (or “news”). The poet Matthew Zapruder talks about this in his excellent article “Poetry and Poets in a Time of Crisis”:
“…there is a point where it becomes too much, a kind of roar of opinions and fears that does not truly stir us to action or make us more aware. There is a danger to unfettered catastrophizing, which will sap our energy and distract and drain us. On social media and elsewhere, our attention has been monetized, not figuratively but literally, to a personally and societally harmful degree. We are fully in danger of succumbing to the rope-a-dope of the outrage machine. If we aren’t careful, we’ll punch ourselves out by Inauguration.”
The question then becomes, How should we cope?
Zapruder argues for poetry, and I confess that, as a poet, that is precisely where I have gone. Having let my own poetry languish for months, I am recently back to writing poems and revising my old poetry manuscript. I find I need poetry, the way it embraces paradox and contradiction, the way its metaphors encompass my rage and fear and sorrow and make something out of them. Some of the poems I’m writing are “political” in topic, and some aren’t. (Although, as the poet Carl Philips asks, “Can we only be political when we are speaking to specific issues of identity, exclusion, injustice?” In other words: who defines what is a “political” poem and what isn’t?) No doubt, as usual, some of my new poems will end up feeling good enough to submit to magazines, and some won’t. I’m finding that what I need is the act of creation, the turning of my thoughts and feelings and experiences into something. Without this act of creation, I am merely enduring.
Paraphrasing Wallace Stevens, Zapruder also claims that poetry is the way to “preserve within ourselves the necessary space of imagination, possibility, humanity, love, a space that can help us live our lives.” And some of you will know the words of Stevens’ foil, William Carlos Williams, who wrote, “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.”
In that same poem, Williams wrote, “I was cheered / when I came first to know / that there were flowers also / in hell.” Flowers, poetry—these are metaphors, I believe, for what is beautiful, mysterious, created but also somehow a reflection of the human condition, the search for meaning. These are metaphors for all types of art. Others can debate what art is and isn’t, what is the best kind of art, and all the rest of the spectrum of scholarly inquiry and discussion.
What I believe: when you create, you are resisting. Whether it’s music or dance, fiction or poetry or creative nonfiction or plays, paintings or sculpture or film or any number of other art forms, creation is resistance. Creation resists oppression and suppression. Creation resists apathy and nihilism. Creation resists tyrants and control. Because creation is unpredictable. It surprises even the one creating. It makes us smarter. It makes room for a bigger life, an interior life more complex and subtle than the noise of standard media allows. Creation snatches us out of the fast-moving current of mundane daily tasks and deposits us on the riverbank for a time, so we can really look around us, so we can breathe.
So if you have an urge, even a small one, to create—do it now. It doesn’t have to be for public consumption. Make that perfect holiday decoration. Choreograph dance moves with your friends to your favorite song. Sing your own song while you’re folding laundry. And, if you do create for public consumption, don’t listen to the inner voice telling you that now isn’t the right time for such selfish or frivolous pursuits. Now is exactly the time.