It wasn't a moment for words -- or rather, it was a moment for words, just words. Because only words, poetry, can be imperfect enough -- more perfect enough -- to capture how strange and unformed and provisional and playful and new the moment felt. When the founders declared independence, they were making poetry in the old Greek sense: poetry, poesis, the act of creation. They were declaring, declaring their independence to stake a claim not just for a new nation but for an old imagination that could bring people together in peace and prosperity. And it was an imagination would necessarily have to be expressed in words, that would have to try and fail to use and be ready to amend words to make life more like that imagination. Unalienable rights were alien until the word “unalienable.” And even then, they would have to be tirelessly defended, with words.
And words were a perfect symbol too for this always new country, tools that connect, however clumsily, however imperfectly, our thoughts to our feelings to our world to our things to each other and to us. They are the formulas that describe our emotional physics. Divinations that make anyone an oracle. Bridges, they are bridges for the gaps that make our world interesting, and they are never bridges to stand on but ones to run across and run back and stare across and gawk at. Rivers to ride across, like Washington across the Delaware -- or Walt Whitman coming over from Brooklyn. He asked
What is it, then, between us?
What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?
Whatever it is, it avails not—distance avails not, and place avails not.
That vision is a moving one. And what does moving mean anyway? Not just “emotional.” I am moved to say that this adjective describing feelings is still connected to the physical act of moving. That something moving is something that transports you between two places: the real and the imaginary, the actual and the ideal, the reality and the dream. It's not the destination but the journey to it and back that "moves" me. The lingering in the midst of crossing that makes you see not one side or the other, but both, and the possibility of getting where you're going, where you've been, and the great spaces between them.
To say something is moving is to propose the possibility that there distance doesn't matter, place doesn't matter, because you're crossing between the two points, you're already closing the gap. It's like a dream in which you can't tell the difference between what's part of your waking life and what's part of your imagination. But it doesn't matter, what matters is you're moving suddenly from past to future and the present is a present, revealing something you didn't realize about how you felt, and showing you how you feel. It's the surprise of that moment that's moving. The sublime, the suspension of disbelief – and suddenly everyone's breathing together. The image is: beating chests and holding and waving together like flags that are torn but not faded. Again, Whitman the American bard:
But I was Manhattanese, friendly and proud!
I was call'd by my nighest name by clear loud voices of young men as they saw me approaching or passing,
Felt their arms on my neck as I stood, or the negligent leaning of their flesh against me as I sat,
Saw many I loved in the street, or ferry-boat, or public assembly, yet never told them a word,
Lived the same life with the rest, the same old laughing, gnawing, sleeping,
Play'd the part that still looks back on the actor or actress,
The same old role, the role that is what we make it, as great as we like,
Or as small as we like, or both great and small.
If I had to guess where I was when the election was over, how I was being moved – and again, how I will be moved on inauguration – it was somewhere between the politically correct rhetoric of a multicultural education -- the kind that attached words like "historic" and "racial barrier" to momentous occasions -- and the sharply vivid sense of injustice that has weighed down on people in the America like a curse, a tree growing in reverse weighing heavily on the dark soaked dirt, on the strange unborn fruit. It was somewhere between my sense of what had happened and what had actually happened. The feeling of years, of decades of injustices, and then, again, more years of injustices, weighing down on me somehow and seeping out, dripping, pouring out, from a small, hard pit inside -- and the feeling that they had become so deep that I didn't notice them there, so ingrown, that I could not care anymore.
Or the feeling that I had not given up after all, that I did actually care, and, for a moment, I realized just how much.
(I don't know why I cried. That's probably why I cried even harder.)
The first thing I did -- the thing that triggered this moving sensation, the feeling of being rocked by waves -- was find a poem. Partly because I guess only words -- faulty, grasping words -- could approximate on the outside what I was feeling inside, could ride the gaps between the facts, the results, the news, and the long string of things that had led there, and the long stirring of what was beneath it.
And partly because I just had to find this poem. With no intention, with no idea that I would think of it at that moment, but as if on cue when Wolf Blitzer or whoever said it, I pressed my hands to the keys and found it. It was as if it had been waiting in the back of my head for years, sitting there fallow in the attic of my brain with a pile of other high school poems, heavy in the dust of explanation and context and connotation and history, waiting to be dusted off, and seen again. Langston Hughes:
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.
Say to me,
"Eat in the kitchen,"
They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed--
I, too, am America.
The feeling that we are not one thing but many things. There is much talk now of healing divisions and coming together as one. That is beautiful. And at the same time, also beautiful, is the fact, the possibility that we can be one and many together. That we can each contain multitudes and sing ourselves and each other and everything and and and and --
It's the beauty of the deepest love, the deepest strangeness, the promise of the past and the future meeting, of people brought together despite the odds against them.
And just as I was reading the first poem, another poem caught my eye on the side of the page—I was scanning for more oracles, more explanations, more séances for a catharsis – through the beating of the election drums, the beading of my eye. The poem is great, the reference is Whitman, and the title is
Let America Be America Again
Whatever we want to say about this country, bad or good, it's beauty lies in the revolutionary cauldron in which it was born, and which, thank the blankest verses of the Constitution, it has never quite left. It takes time for the revolutions to come, but it always comes back to being America again. It always rewrites itself, reinvents itself, Our Greatest Poem.
I think I knew about that. But I had forgotten about that. The words reminded me.
Forgive my excesses here and my melodrama. I'm not very patriotic; I haven't really felt this way before and may not feel it again the same way. And I'm skeptical too. But this moment, this feeling, it's a moment to take in. And it's not a moment that ever really leaves. You see, I don't think this is about something as blind and repetitive and devotional as patriotism. It's almost about its equal and exact opposite.
It's about the words, the metaphors and the symbols we use to convey our imaginations. It's about the imperfect relation between each of us, between us and generations before and to come, between us and what we want to be, between dreams and actions, and how we try to make the relationship more perfect all the time. It's why we voted – which is poetry made political, a “yes” or a “no,” times millions and put into law – and why we said yes, yes we can.
It's why I wrote these imperfect words, why I tried to move across the gap for a brief moment again, and it's why you are reading it.