Adapted from the symposium on Poetry & Populism held at University of Göttingen, Göttingen, Germany, July 12-14, 2018.
So, the world gets smaller as the United States and Europe come closer in yet another way. One of the things we share, of course, and that the U.S. has shared now, particularly with Germany, for quite a while, is the political phenomenon and expression of populism. I think that in Germany populism has been perceived lately, and all too accurately, as a problem and an opportunity–that is, its ideological plasticity allows it, as a notion and a political platform, to be picked up not only by the left and the right, but to be used by each of them against the other. Why else would or could Chancellor Angela Merkel adopt an anti-populist stance in opposition to both Die Linke and AfD parties as she navigated through the ideological Scylla & Charybdis on her way to a fourth term? Back in the States, we remain rather mystified by the notion of populism, maybe because we are still tangled in its roots in late-19th century politics and the Midwestern “heartland” ideals that continue to define much of how Americans view their country.
But today, more confusing still, I’m here in the guise of Donald Trump, who couldn’t write one sentence about populism, but who has triumphed, so far, as a fake populist against the questionable populism of Bernie Sanders and the transparently inept populism of Hilary Clinton. The populism of Trump’s Republican primary-rivals prior to the U.S. election was so flimsy that it seemed to fall apart like a mansion of tissue paper in a downpour.
The paradoxy of populism–the fact that it’s an elite notion about opposition towards elitism–is expressed everywhere in the Trump assault on American democracy, but is captured nowhere better than in his nationalist battle-cry, “America first”, which is, it seems, only the latest version of an American call for Volksgemeinschaft–only the one thing it’s guaranteed not to bring is a sense of national community. And the voice of this “America first” campaign is Trump’s, the elitist declamation of a populist ruse.
What we hear in Trump’s speeches is nothing new, but it is, in a twisted sense, a better product. When George W. put on a Texas accent in his speeches, he sounded fake; when Obama shifted into longer vowel sounds talking to Black church groups, or opted for the word “folks,” no one ever mistook it for it what it wasn’t. But Trump does not, as a social linguist would say, “linguistically accommodate” anyone; he doesn’t code-shift. His Queens accent, even if it’s an elite Queens variety, lends him a working-class vocal patina that never rubs thin–it gives him a sound of authenticity and authority that is died-in-the-blue (or calculatedly red) populist, and it’s anti-elitist almost by definition–it is the sound that a person with social or political ambitions would want to reduce, soften, and assimilate with a more standard-sounding middle-of-America-middle-class-middle-of-the-road English as they moved up the social ladder. But not Trump. He has kept what he was given, and added to it. Trump has unwittingly promoted the populist notion of demotic speech in the political arena to the level of sanctioned vulgarism. The sound of his fucking voice, the Trumpian vulgate, is made possible by the elitism of his situation; he continues to echo populist vocalisms and ideological positions that embellish the vocal posture he was born with. It’s a classic move; what’s new is that even as he sounds “real,” he reveals at every turn that his only ideology is capitalism, but a brand of maverick capitalism in which he is not answerable to any of his investors, or to anyone else for that matter. What opportunities does it present a poet?
I’m afraid I’m not here to shed any light on the problem of populism and poetry, but rather, as a poet, to throw shade and further confusion through the example of a single, if not exemplary, practice. These are poems that are made out of Trump’s own language–drawn from interviews, speeches, tweets, off-hand remarks, to which I’ve added language that I’ve invented, inspired by him. (I use that word, inspired, in a completely neutral, or even negative way, as one might say “I’ve been inspired by a virus.”) They come out of a single observation, which is that Trump is such a radiantly bad abuser of the English language that his speech has the force of a kind of anti-poetry, a kind of verbal brutalism. You’ll hear in the Trumpoems the rough meter and often satirical rhyming associated with broadside balladry, limericks, nursery rhymes, doggerel, and other folk forms. It was amazing for me to discover how easily Trump’s own speech fell into these patterns to create a kind of collage mash-up. Trump relies heavily on parallelism, rhetorical inversion or inverse mirroring, and different kinds of repetition coupled with circular reasoning and non-sequitur, all arranged in a simple parataxis, an unrelievedly plain diction, and clunking rhythms. This is, ironically, some of the real stuff of poetry. But pretty it ain’t.
I don’t know of any precedence for what I’m doing in these poems, but there are forebears. I’d single out the American poet, Thomas McGrath, who hailed from North Dakota and worked his way, ideologically, through a turn of the century agrarian populism to Wobbly-ism and radical Marxism. Certain aspects of his formal practice are deeply informed by Bertolt Brecht’s example, especially the way that Brecht draws from a long tradition of satirical songs in German, and brings to it something of Rudyard Kipling’s swashbuckling Barrack-Room Ballads, combined with the earthy naturalism of Francois Villon. Most importantly for these Trumpoems is Brecht’s notion of Gestisch, (gesture) in language, a way of using words dramatically to express the body that must accompany them, must speak them. Trump’s body is a sight, its size and ungainliness something to behold; but it is also a site, a location where language is the real domain, a place of physical verbal gesture rather than a place of semantic meaning. This meaninglessness of Trump’s language, strictly understood, makes it something like verbalen kacke, verbal crap. Maybe there’s something here, as well, of T.S. Eliot’s early racist quatrain poems, and the contemporary use in recent American poetry of debased verbal materials found online and in other language dumps, that’s called Flarf (and has been practiced by poets such as K. Silem Mohammad, Sharon Mesmer, Rodney Koeneke, and Rod Smith, who edited the recent Flarf anthology through his Edge Books–shout out!). To write these Trumpoems has been a gross exercise in degradation. Someone had to do it. I don’t know why it had to be me.
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