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Published: Mon Oct 23 2017
Gerry Bergstein, Sky Writer #2 (detail), 2019, oil on canvas
Build Strangers, Bomb Walls

I wrote a poem called “Donald Trump.” It’s a curtal sonnet, and it’s not very good. Even though I knew I had little chance to succeed with this poem, I went ahead and wrote it. My inspiration to begin the poem was a poet-friend of mine, Matt Roth, who said this phrase that I immediately knew would make for a good ending of a curtal sonnet: “build strangers / bomb walls.”  That spondee, right? So I ripped him off, and then I just had to write the poem backwards to lead up to these final rhymes. As with most poems I write, I spent too much time on it. I’m a slow study. All told, maybe an entire 40 hours (spread out over a period of about two months). Incidentally, I wrote this poem before Trump even won the nomination. I never thought he would get that far or even be President. Who among us poets, the most imaginative of people, could imagine? I know thousands of poets, and there are only two of them who think Mr. Trump is doing a good job or could possibly do a good job. Of these two, one is a delusional person who believes Sandy Hook and the 9/11 disaster to be conspiracies perpetrated by the CIA and Jews. The other is, I think, a multi-millionaire, who personally benefits from Trump’s policies that benefit himself and the ultra-rich, so he’s laughing all the way to the bank, literally.

Like most political poems, my poem fails due to its knowing all too well its rhetorical stance. One of my favorite adages about poetry is by Yeats: “Of our quarrel with others we make rhetoric; of our quarrels with ourselves we make poetry.” A poem must be a place of discovery. What’s to be discovered here, so I can be poetic and not rhetorical? That Donald Trump is, in fact, a petty and ignorant man, a lover of money, illiterate, a con-man, and a womanizer? Big surprise! Come on; everyone knows these truths we hold self-evident. Of course, being a poet, I need to say this in an interesting way, formally, so that’s a bit of a challenge and perhaps could result in something. But then, probably not much with this here poem. Yet so many people around me are writing political poems and getting so much attention for them, even though I don’t think much of these poems, in general. There’s little mystery, or none. At best, they might entertain with ranting, but they aren’t writing good poems.

I wrote the poem anyway because poems are places of discovery, and you never know what might happen. And I needed to lead up to that final surprising revelation of what it might be for a poet to say we need to “bomb walls.” I’m a pacifist, in general, though not completely, so I knew that I was conflicted there, and a poet needs to be conflicted about his writing.

For a year, I’ve sent the poem around to a whole slew of places, but no one wants it. I’ve tinkered with it, and it hasn’t got much better. I’m not upset. I get it. It’s just not very good. It’s got a few decent rhymes. Sometimes good poems go unpublished, but that’s not likely the case here. The politics (specifically, the rhetoric) limit the poem. Yeats wasn’t wrong. But my friend Paul Hunton, an Emmy-winning director, made a little poetry film out of it, and our collaboration is excellent, I think. My poem needed a little boost of visuals to raise it to a level worth listening to. It’s like most songs you hear on the radio. The lyrics aren’t very good out there by themselves, but some instrumental work allows the song with its faulty lyrics to climb the charts.

Check it out?

John Poch is the author of two collections of poetry and also served as the editor of the anthology Hockey Haiku: The Essential Collection (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2006). His most recent book is Dolls (Orchises Press, 2009). He was the editor of the literary journal 32 Poems for ten years, and currently teaches in the creative writing program at Texas Tech University. (updated 4/2012)

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