Inaugurated by the Academy of American Poets in April of 1996, National Poetry Month has grown into an extended, month-long literary celebration embraced by writers, bookstores, and classrooms alike. The arts feel more vital than ever during these unprecedented times, and this year the month will be observed through a large number of virtual readings and teaching events. Poet Myronn Hardy, who divides his time between Morocco and New York City, reflects on the role of a contemporary poet.
In the building across from mine, inside the top-center window, an American flag hangs vertically. I see it every day, every morning. My desk faces it. I face it. My eyes aim toward it as the sun turns the navy sky into something more teal. I’m scribbling a poem I can’t get right.
The flag spans the window of the off-white building in need of repainting. The flag hangs over a street, over stoop dwellers opioid and alcohol addicted, underemployed, wounded; yet they claim “their” country is in danger and the current president has the answers to bring it back, to bring them back, bring everything back. This is what America is now. She is exposed.
Here we are.
After almost a decade living outside America, this is what I see, transparently. I’m not removed from it. It isn’t theory discussed with non-Americans or American academics living abroad. It’s what we are walking through, living through, this is what inhabits us second by minute by hour. This is what we drink and eat and breathe. It is overwhelming. And this feeling, these feelings are where poems or the things that make poems, now, exist for me. This hard, difficult, liminal, ineffableness is this moment. Many poets I know and read are also diving into it, are trying to make sense of this seemingly senseless moment. These blatant, willful corruptions, crimes we see passed over without punishment, such deep injustices the noise of it all, the screaming, the disorganization organized to hate.
Here we are.
The idea of being unprotected is clear. We know it. And what is protected is also very clear.
This semester I’m teaching a class called, “‘I, too, sing America’: Poetry of this Moment/Movement.” In this course we are reading poems that address this curious time. We began reading that Langston Hughes poem from which the course is named as well as Walt Whitman, and Allen Ginsberg, poets of the past who’ve addressed their moments yet croon loudly to this one. The contemporary poets we read are Terrance Hayes, Claudia Rankine, Austin Smith, Layli Long Solider, and Tishani Doshi. We discuss their poems and the moment and America and make the connections. This moment in America frustrates most of my students. They feel ineffective. What do we do when so much seems to be burning? When history, unacknowledged, and called, “over” contorts us? I’m thinking of William Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” One of my students after class said, “I’m exhausted.” I responded,
“Here we are.”
I left campus hearing the American flag flailing on its pole.
During the president’s impeachment hearings, one morning, like many mornings, I walked to the only café in town to work. On the street named for my favorite European city, I sat at my usual table facing a large window. I ordered my usual cup of green tea. From my pocket, I pulled out a small-paper-wrapped bundle of mint. I dropped the sprigs in the tea, a habit I learned in Morocco. Slices of dried citrus attached to fish line, dangled from the oak molding. Across the street, a crowd had gathered with signs stating their support of this president and his reelection. There were about fifteen people there, middle aged women and men with gray hair, old men and women, and their children and grandchildren, some were veterans. Some had small American flags in their hands of which they waved. One held a confederate flag.
Poetry may live in that waving American flag, in the stars of both flags, and why the wavers decide to do such, to stand in the cold and be seen. Poetry may live in the wheels of the wheelchair one of the supporters spins to that street. Poetry may live in the witnessing of this event and why the seer doesn’t understand their action or does and is afraid of the consequence and its implication.
As I sat there, I recalled a line from W. H. Auden’s poem, “September 1, 1939,” “We must love one another or die.” Watching that group on the other side of the street, and thinking about everything happening now, the conclusion I draw is we are dying. We have chosen to do so because certainly love or loving one another isn’t the agenda the small group supports or their signs. What is this moment we’ve created doing to us? What does it show? What does it mean when those same people, I imagine, just like those on my street, smile at me, greet me in the morning when I leave for work, alert me to the ice on the sidewalk, “Be careful. It’s slippery”?
For me, it has me questioning, turning to my fellow poets, and attempting to make poems that help me understand or bring me closer to understanding what to feel, what I know, what I see, what I hope to see. And how those on my street and those holding their signs in front of the café, see.
After years living in North Africa, I returned to New York City in the summer of 2018. I took a Greyhound from Penn Station to Maine, my new state, the first time I’d been in the state. I remember the rain on the windows. I remember crossing into Maine and seeing a large truck, one side of it had an illustration of the current president’s face. He was smiling. I was not smiling as I stared through the wet window. And as the bus passed the truck, I saw the American flag flapping from one of the truck’s rearview windows. And, from its other rearview window, a confederate flag. That image made me remember a matchbox car I had as a child, one modeled after the famous Dukes of Hazzard car, “The General Lee” a red 1969 Dodge Charger with the confederate flag painted on its roof. I remembered my father watching me roll the car across the floor, swiftly saying, “I don’t like that car. Play with another one.” He took it from me. And I asked why. He was silent then reluctantly told me what it meant and how he saw that flag often hanging on roofs, and awnings in Arkansas where he grew up.
The contemporary poet is asked to see this moment. To do that work in language not only through the rigors of craft but hold the weight, the emotional exhaustion, the frustration this moment irrevocably elicits.
Later in the afternoon, I walk to my apartment. It’s gotten dark but there are lights in the building across from mine. I look at that flag. It is untouched: still vertical, still filling that window. It seems different but it’s the same.
Myronn Hardy is the author of four previous books of poems: Approaching the Center, winner of the PEN/Oakland Josephine Miles Prize; The Headless Saints, winner of the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award; Catastrophic Bliss, winner of the Griot-Stadler Award for Poetry; and, most recently, Kingdom. He divides his time between Morocco and New York City.