Poetry For Politics: How To Make It Through The Last Week

11/26/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

If you're like me, you've recently found yourself lying awake at night worrying that Reverend Wright might decide it's time to head to Washington to make another speech, that bin Laden might emerge from his cave to announce he has a man-crush on Obama, or that the fate of the free world rests on that two point drop in the latest Gallup Daily poll.

Yes, it's the last two weeks of the '08 election and the robocalls are in full bloom, Joe the Plumber is looking for love, and the Republicans are going down firing at everything that moves. Just this past Thursday, Matt Drudge played up the incredibly dubious mugging of McCain staffer Ashley Todd by a 6'4", black (!!), politically impassioned mugger/expert knife etcher, hoping he might help turn the election by igniting racially-based fears. Then Fox News executive vice president John Moody wrote this:

"This incident could become a watershed event in the 11 days before the election. If Ms. Todd's allegations are proven accurate, some voters may revisit their support for Senator Obama."

I'm sure that makes perfect sense in his racist head. The whole thing, it was revealed Friday, was just some third-rate race baiting by a troubled young woman.

Yes, you'd better get the scotch ready--it's not going to be an easy final week. As Matthew Arnold wrote in "Dover Beach,"

And we are here as on a darkling plain
struck by confused alarms of struggle and fright,
where ignorant armies clash by night

Well one ignorant army, anyway. To help get you through these last nine--I'm guessing increasingly painful--days, I'd offer these poems.

First, here's an excerpt from the revolutionary Percy Bysshe Shelley's classic "Ode to the West Wind." A perfect poem for the Fall, which seeks to remind us that after such dark times comes Spring:

Make me thy lyre, ev'n as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies
Will take from both a deep autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! be thou me, impetuous one!
Drive my dead thoughts over the universe,
Like wither'd leaves, to quicken a new birth;
And, by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguish'd hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawaken'd earth
The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

And here's the conclusion of Tennyson's "Ulysses," one of the great inspirational poems in the Western canon.

... Come, my friends.
'T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,--
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

If that doesn't get you fired up and ready to go, I don't know what will. Of course, if somehow fear and bigotry win the day, you'd best take your advice from Dorothy Parker's "Resume":

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren't lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

I guess. On a more serious note, I can't think of a more meaningful poem for this week than "I, Too, Sing America" by Langston Hughes. Born in Joplin, Mississippi in 1902, Hughes knew racism well, and he answered it here with a proud, challenging style that echoes Whitman. It stuns me to think that this was written--that Hughes faced these issues--just over fifty years ago. And it makes me smile to think of what's about to happen now.

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody'll dare
Say to me,
"Eat in the kitchen,"

They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed--

I, too, am America.

He is. And by next Tuesday, I hope, no one will ever be able to dispute that.