A canon round for democracy: The literati’s power in a populist era is limited, but vital

If Beyoncé and Jay Z plugging Hillary failed to resist Trump, what can Writers Resist do? Maybe more than you think

Published January 14, 2017 11:30PM (EST)

New York Public Library   (Getty/Theo Wargo)
New York Public Library (Getty/Theo Wargo)

Poetry makes nothing happen.
— W.H. Auden, 1939

. . . even the millionth tragedy
went uncelebrated the day

the world was born. No cake.
No sacred confetti . . .

— “At Last,” Erin Belieu, founder of Writers Resist

When Auden made one of the most disputed literary claims of the century, a claim as misconstrued as it is quoted (and often misattributed to Pound), it was after facing censure from erstwhile Marxist groupies for not meeting the party’s stringent demands. In short, Auden wasn’t radical enough — at least to those who believed that literature had a moral obligation to leftist exigencies of the time. What he did not say, of course, is that poets make nothing happen. Nor did he say that they, or any other artists, are beholden to do the opposite.

Flash forward about 75 years and the debate still bubbles from the well of letters — and can sometimes feel, in the age of Donald Trump, as though it is reaching a boiling point. “Clashes over the political rights and wrongs of poetry, then as now,” wrote Robert Huddleston about Auden, “are often disguised contests over cultural and academic turf, ideological purity, and even the relative priority of criticism versus artistic practice.”

Our own century has thus far witnessed an influx of writers participating in acts of protest and political causes, be they Occupy Wall Street or Black Lives Matter or the defense of Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo. When poets Robert Hass and Brenda Hillman were injured in 2012 at an Occupy protest at UC Davis, Hass’ New York Times opinion piece conveyed, with visceral precision, the sudden brutality of the police.

On Sunday thousands of writers throughout the nation will stand up to “defend democracy” through a self-described “movement” called Writers Resist, founded by poet Erin Belieu. In what is surely one of the largest literary demonstrations in years, readings will be held to “bypass empty political discourse and focus public attention on the ideals of a free, just and compassionate society.” No doubt laudable, but is it activism? And if so, what can it activate?

“Literary Greats Brave Cold to Re-Inaugurate Democracy,” declares its press release, a headline that reads as self-congratulatory as it is fantastically abstract. A fresco of eminent faces sullenly professing, “we are literature” appeared above a promotional piece for the San Francisco Chronicle. Included among them were poets Rita Dove and Robert Pinsky, novelists Michael Cunningham and Beth Nguyen, memoirists Cheryl Strayed and Mary Karr and young adult writer Jacqueline Woodson (the outlier with an openmouthed grin).

During a time of twisted populism and rampant anti-intellectualism, it’s tempting to ask how a protest that resembles an academic Association of Writers & Writing Programs panel might serve democracy or the common good. Resistance like activism and all good writing essentially hinges on risk: What risk exists for a bunch of recognized authors who are staging a reading in Manhattan?

At first glance, such proclamations come across as painfully naive, at least in terms of the tenuous connection between the canon and general populace. In his heartrending farewell address on Tuesday as President Barack Obama championed “ordinary citizens,” he probably didn’t mean Pulitzer Prize winners like Jeffrey Eugenides and Rita Dove. That the headliners for Writers Resist might be touted as “famous” (former poet laureate and "The Simpsons" guest star Robert Pinsky, for instance) also feels a bit risible from a broader vantage. And famous to whom? I loved (and taught) Pinsky’s "The Sounds of Poetry" tutorial for years, but I daresay I am not in the majority. If Beyoncé and Jay Z plugging Hillary Clinton failed to resist Trump's win, how’s Pinsky going to save us?

But to discount Writers Resist as bookish kumbaya-ing also feels too cynical. The point isn’t to effect widespread change in policy or political outlook; their appeal here, as in any consciousness-raising effort, is mostly symbolic. Yes, most of those on the main marquee are male and even more are white, but the fact that they are airing their dissent days before the inauguration — and less than a mile from Trump headquarters — isn’t nothing.

As Salon columnist Conor Lynch put it: “Trump’s populism has always been more anti-intellectual than anti-elitist. (Of course many Americans perceive intellectuals and academics as the ultimate elites, even though they have little political or economic power.)” When the soon-to-be leader of the free world boasts that he’s about to “drain the swamp” of smarties, they have every justification to splash about first.

What is much more important and impressive about Writers Resist is how quickly it has galvanized a diaspora of writers from coast to coast — not all famous, not all academic, not all feeding an echo chamber of ready blue-state ears. When asked whether she considers the readings themselves to be forms of activism, Belieu told me she sees the readings as “a starting point." She added, "In order to work as a community we have to first find a community. What was brilliant in the first couple [of] days of organizing this event is how many people have flocked to it. All these communities that didn’t know the others were out there started joining together.”

And for those such as (admittedly) myself who are a bit skeptical of trickle-down theories of influence, Belieu’s approach seems refreshingly grounded. “All politics is local and all activism is local," she said. "Our national voice goes back to individual communities, where people are trying to protect and defend progressive organizations and thought.”

Could this be the launch of a hopeful corrective to questions of academic relevance, a rejoinder to the claim that the lit world is politically effete?

Among the 90 events slated for Sunday, from Austin, Texas, to Athens, Georgia, the majority are taking place in liberal hotbeds, but certainly not all. Take Tallahassee, where Belieu is a professor at Florida State University. In the heart of the deep-red panhandle, both academic and local poets will unite at a reading at a community theater to raise funds for “the most vulnerable members of our society.” There are events planned for Indianapolis, home of Vice President-elect Mike Pence; Racine, Wisconsin; Moscow, Idaho; Jacksonville, Mississippi; and Columbia, Missouri, and dozens more places. Many rosters mingle canonized writers with volunteers from the region, and many events are devoting funds raised to the American Civil Liberties Union and Southern Poverty Law Center.

“We have not only a responsibility, but a certain privilege through links to these academic establishments,” emphasized Alex Quinlan, a Florida State University poet involved in the Tallahassee event. “And if someone on the steps of the New York Public Library can inspire others to commit themselves to real activism, then that inspiration is a fulfillment of the writer’s responsibility and the embodiment of the power of language in the service of the public good.”

If this type of grassroots proliferation — and cross-pollination — of creative allegiance is what Writers Resist, as an event and perhaps even a movement, perpetuates, then it is defending democracy of the kind that both academics and the public sphere need more now than ever. So what's next? Belieu has said that Sunday’s readings serve as “only a starting point in raising our voices in defense of democracy.”

The website suggests starting a book club “to explore the democratic values espoused by the Writers Resist organization” or launching a reading series at a local school. While these might seem to be a bit timid in terms of on-the-ground activism, efforts encouraging writers, especially academic ones, to get off the campus and into the wider world are wholly a good thing, especially in a time of unprecedented division between academia and public discourse.

“We need to break down these separations between writers,” stressed Belieu. “When I reached out to people, many said that they’d never done anything like this before, but in this moment they did not feel as though they had a choice. I think people are genuinely scared in a way that they’ve never really been before." Added Belieu: "It’s not just a whole new level of bad, but so many people thought we were going in another, more progressive direction.”

What's timely in this respect is the fact that the readings will be held in conjunction with Martin Luther King Day: King was nothing if not adamant that acquiescence to injustice was just as dangerous as the decision to inflict it. “The ultimate tragedy,” he famously wrote, “is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.”

Perhaps that is how Writers Resist and like causes can best be understood: if not quite as activism, then as a refusal to be silent, as the choice to acknowledge that the spring semester cannot be business as usual. “I never understood why [university] tenure doesn’t make people braver,” Belieu said of the secure institutional status that full-time professors achieve after several years of successful service. “The idea of tenure was built on the idea of intellectual and creative leadership, but it doesn’t feel like it’s fulfilled that promise in a certain way. What tenure should do is launch you into leadership that extends to the outside world. It shouldn’t be a place to go and hide.” Is it any wonder then that two states have just introduced legislation to abolish the institution of tenure itself?

Still, however vital it is for writers and professors, tenured or not, to get out there and break the silence, progress has not stemmed primarily from eloquent sounds from a pulpit or visionary enjambment. Rather, it has come from the bodies of all people, all colors, all economic classes, willing to put themselves at grave risk in defense of justice.

If writers — perhaps especially those of the canon and who teach it (and I count myself in the latter category here) — take Jan. 15 as a first step toward actual activism, then the next four years could foretell a new wave of scholarship and organizing that unites otherwise estranged polarities. If not, little will be “re-inaugurated” but the same cynicism toward the arts, the academy and the intelligentsia that the movement is overtly trying to combat.

In less than a week, we will say goodbye to a leader who is not only infectiously charismatic to millions worldwide but who is eager to talk shop (democracy, the U.S. Constitution and other light topics) with the likes of Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson. “When I think about how I understand my role as citizen, setting aside being president, and the most important set of understandings that I bring to that position of citizen,” President Barack Obama reflected in his 2015 dialogue with the Iowa author, “the most important stuff I’ve learned I think I’ve learned from novels. It has to do with empathy. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays, but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for that.”

This president will soon be replaced by a man who not only avoids reading books but also brags about not reading them. In such an age, it might be that the true lovers of words, those humbly attentive to the power that they wield, have a new opportunity to spread that passion anew and along with it an enduring respect for complexity over reductive dross.

“To be useful to an artist,” Auden went on in his posthumous manuscript “The Prolific and the Devourer,” “a general idea must be capable of including the most contradictory experiences, and of the most subtle variation and ironic interpretations.”

So whether we are out on the streets holding signs, mentoring school children or petitioning our leaders, writers also must “resist” by persisting in the honest, patient labor of beading one string of words onto another. No need to bring cake or toss confetti.

By Eileen G'Sell

Eileen G'Sell's cultural criticism and poetry have been featured in Flavorpill, Belt Magazine, DIAGRAM, the Boston Review, and Conduit, among other publications. She is Film & Media editor at The Rumpus and she teaches writing, film, and poetry at Washington University in St. Louis.

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Donald Trump Literary Activism W.h. Auden Writers Resist