Taking Two Roads at Once: A Poetic Response to Absurd Politics

Editor’s note: Michael guest edited Shrew Issue 8, which you can read here.

November 8, 2016 was the advent of an absurd world. I could not, and still have not been able to accept that a character like Donald Trump is president of the country I call home. Plunged into that absurd world, I found myself straining against the old walls of my poetic habitat. Its usual confines seemed too restrictive, even unreliable. Something in them betrayed me, something in them must have implied that this absurd world was possible, and I missed it, or it was hidden from me. Here my poetry split and traveled in two different directions. Unlike Frost’s traveler, I did not need to pretend to some all-important choice: where two roads diverged, I could travel both.

One direction my poetry took was into the clearest articulation I could manage with topics I had rarely dared before to undertake. Personal encounters with beauty or private existential mysteries felt like a dodge, much the way Brecht famously said of his time

Ah, what an age it is
When to speak of trees is almost a crime
For it is a kind of silence about injustice!
(translated by H. R. Hays)

The hatred and violence that rose in the country with the election of Trump and which persists, was something I had to include in my poems. Excluding it was a silence I could no longer tolerate. I recognize this now as my rejection of the privilege I have as a white male in my culture, the rejection of its ignorance and blindness. My head rang with a line from Camus, “the will to be lucid.” Topics that had haunted me for years but which I never felt equal to putting into words finally crystalized on the page: topics like racism and sexism or even current events.

I was surprised that the subjects found words that equaled my aesthetic expectations, which was always my central fear in handling these topics. That is, I feared they wouldn’t sing. But Adrienne Rich pointed out that writers can “witness without sacrificing craft, nuance, or beauty.” Beauty and confrontation are not mutually exclusive. In fact, this is the assertion of a conservative politics disguised as aesthetics, i.e., the idea that a political poem can’t be beautiful or enduring. But such poems as Auden’s “September 1, 1939;” McKay’s “If We Must Die,” Clifton’s “Memory,” Hughes’ “Who but the Lord?” and many more, give this assertion the lie.

As I delved into this need for clarity regarding confrontation with the violence of the time, I turned to certain writers like Adrienne Rich, Czelsaw Milosz, Langston Hughes, Albert Camus, Lucile Clifton, James Baldwin, John Berger, and others. These became vital sources, voices that encouraged me to keep bending my mind to the task, clarifying the obscurities inherent in a culture intent on manipulating my perception. Rich especially has become a poetic touchstone, a voice whose intelligence and persistence in both poetry and prose inspire.

But this was not the only track my poetry took in seeking some grasp of the strange American landscape that opened on November 8, 2016. Concomitant with this will to clarity regarding sociopolitical issues and the state of the country, was my profound sense of the warping of reality. In the wake of white supremacists and zero tolerance, the beliefs outlined in something like The Declaration of Independence seemed, at best, distorted. If something in my previous poetic language betrayed me, then the need to find a new language to witness the distortion became a necessity of poetic survival. Without a language to name and describe the absurd reality, I would be swallowed by it.

I turned to surrealists from Breton, Eluard and Char to Tate and Cesaire. As Cesaire found:

dead stars calmed by marvelous hands gush
from the pulp of my eyes”
(translated by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith)

in response to this strange world, I wrote:

When coarse human events become necessary,
people dissolve, a gloom powers profit.”

And deeper in to this absurd landscape I reworked a journal entry into a poem where:

I cleave to the septic plover and squelch ants,
intent to parrot torsions of rusting domes.”

Such an absurd language was the necessity of a reality that is now absurd because a language governed by reason could not describe it. Indeed, reason and logic might, in describing it, deceive me about its nature. Perhaps going “beyond realism” would be a way of finding some trustworthy meaning, some accurate language. In the wake of a language that could bear witness to it, perhaps I would also find a way to confront the absurdity, that is a language that could map and disclose the strange topography, could also show a path through it.

Even two years in, I’m only at the beginning of this experiment with absurd geography. I’m still in the midst of this project, this divided path, as we are still also in the midst of this administration’s imprisonment of migrant children, or removing all protections of workers against employers, the poor against the wealthy, or the environment against the corporation. However, I doubt the experiment will end with this administration, since there is no end to reaching out toward an ever-receding reality. I’m also very much aware that clarity and absurdity are not, of necessity, mutually exclusive. But for now, in my endeavors as a poet, they are parallel tracks without which the train cannot travel. They are the two ways I need for confronting the absurd reality of my country as it now is. But maybe, like those train tracks, like parallel lines, they will meet in infinity.


Michael T. Young’s

third full-length poetry collection, The Infinite Doctrine of Water, was published by Terrapin Books. His other two collections are The Beautiful Moment of Being Lost and Transcriptions of Daylight. He received a fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and his chapbook, Living in the Counterpoint, received the Jean Pedrick Award from the New England Poetry Club. His poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous journals including Cimarron Review. The Los Angeles Review, The Smart Set, Valparaiso Poetry Review, and Vox Populi.