Why Donald Trump needs to read poetry (and get a cat)

This is not a political blog post per se, although when I’m done you will probably be able to tell on which end of the political spectrum I fall. Nor is the title deliberate click-bait, though I wouldn’t mind if it attracted a few additional readers. It’s not even specifically about The Donald, but rather politicians in general.

So, why do politicians need to read poetry? Let me count the ways.

1. WAR. Any leader who can command his or her own citizens to enter into fights to the death ought to understand, viscerally, what that means. Perhaps we should send presidential candidates to experience for a few hours or days what can only be thought of as the worst kind of human suffering: that inflicted by human beings on one another. There would be plenty of locations to choose from. Since that will never fly, and because I believe in the power of language to bring others into an individual’s experience of the world, I prescribe poetry. Perhaps The Guardian’s suggestions for Top Ten War Poems. Or W. H. Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts, which is not, strictly speaking, a war poem, but which certainly gets the job done.

Painting that inspired Auden's "Musee des Beaux Arts" Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1526/1530–1569) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“The Fall of Icarus,” by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1526/1530–1569), is referred to in Auden’s poem “Musee des Beaux Arts.” [Public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

Poet Walt Whitman, photographed by George C. Cox (1851–1902) [Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

Poet Walt Whitman, photographed by George C. Cox (1851–1902) [Public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

2. EMPATHY. Anyone who makes it his or her business to represent the people needs to understand who those people are. And this requires more than gliding past in an armored limousine or conversing on the stage-set of an orchestrated meeting between royalty and commoner. Instead, read a poem. Read Howard Nemerov’s Life Cycle of Common Man or Walt Whitman’s I Sing the Body Electric.

3. GOD. Your god, no god, my god! My god! What a worship-related mess we have gotten ourselves into in this country. No one can hear anyone else over the cacophony of our received beliefs. Each shout from the other side drives us further into the arms of our zealotry. I prescribe the mystic poets. The Absolute, by Sri Chinmoy. Or try Rumi’s Whoever Brought Me Here. Or take it in another direction altogether with Frederick Seidel’s Mirror Full of Stars or some of Diane Ackerman’s poems for the planets.

4. LOVE. I have no doubt The Donald is a great lover, what with his big hands and all. But how about what the Greeks referred to as agápē—love for humanity; a universal, transcendent love? You need more than big hands to carry that. Some poetry might help. If you’re after romantic love, go classic with Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 or Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Love (though I don’t believe our politicians require encouragement in this regard).

5. NATURE. Oh yeah—climate change. Another fact we still manage to characterize as a two-sided debate. I say: Let the politician walk a hundred miles through the desert. Transport him into the frenzy of the storm of the century. Send her to drink from the poisoned well. Failing that, strive to provide some connection with the natural world. Ideally this would have been cultivated since childhood. If that is not possible, have the politician read Mary Oliver. Any Oliver poem will do and will serve double duty as a door into nature and a door into what makes us human. Start with Oliver’s Trout Lilies (for nature) and then try The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac (for humanity). Bonus: of all the poets mentioned so far, she’s the only one you can keep up with on Facebook.

Lilium rosthornii, by Denis Barthel [Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons]

Lilium rosthornii, by Denis Barthel [Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons]

6. ABOUT THAT CAT. So, I don’t know whether The Donald has any pets. There’s much talk about presidential dogs, though quite a few presidents were partial to cats. Maybe a feline companion would help mitigate the natural hubris that seems to come with political office (though perhaps it doesn’t always work; see Bush II). A cat lives in parallel with its humans, gracing us with its presence unpredictably, not as our servant but as our equal.

How could you build walls if this were your companion?

Could you build walls if you woke up to this face every morning?

A NOTE ABOUT READING POETRY. Many people find poetry inaccessible. I’ve struggled with it too, even as a writer (sometimes of poetry). Here are some tips for enjoying it, even if you think you can’t.

  1. Open yourself to the possibility of the form. This happens naturally, I think, as we get older, so if you’re younger than thirty, wait a couple of decades and try again.
  2. Take it in like music. Let the words of the poem wash over you. Don’t work too hard. Read it once, read it again. Put it away for five years and read it once more. If the poem is intended to speak to you, it will. Don’t read poetry you don’t like.
  3. Read dead poets. Read living poets. Read Billy Collins, Marianne Moore, Rumi, Mary Oliver, John Donne, Emily Dickinson, or anyone else you can find. Tune your ear. Listen, listen, listen.

And, in this last instruction lies the essential medicine for politicians. For you cannot hear the poetry of the world when your own lips are flapping.

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20 thoughts on “Why Donald Trump needs to read poetry (and get a cat)

  1. I think the gift of the poet is ability to attune to the ear and the eye of the reader – like most written art it is induced by empathy. If the reader finds the language discordant, it is probably because he is reading Philip Larkin, or maybe just because this poet is just not the right poet for him. Begun young, poetry has the power to teach and shape minds, but unfortunately in Donald’s case it is far too late for that!

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    • I’d like to think that empathy and listening can be learned at any age, but alas, I think you’re right: in some cases, it’s just too late! If I were president, I’d add mandatory poetry checks to mandatory background checks and build a wall to keep out anyone who hasn’t memorized at least one poem! (Just joking, of course. And that’s probably why I’ll never become president. Not tough enough.)

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