Individual reactions to the results of the presidential election have been varied. For commentator and author Martha Ackmann, it meant reaching to her bookshelf.
‘Find your comfort wherever you can,’ one friend emailed me.
I resisted at first, but then gave into instinct, pulled books from my shelf, and looked for poetry.
First, Emily Dickinson:
After great pain, a formal feeling comes–
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs
Then Langston Hughes:
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table.
I know you are reading this poem listening for something, torn
between bitterness and hope
turning back once again to the task you cannot refuse.
I know you are reading this poem because there is nothing else
left to read
there where you have landed, stripped as you are.
I resisted reading poetry at first because it felt passive. Reading poetry seemed like a luxury, an acquiescent act. It’s like floating in a life preserver when everyone around you is in a boat rowing as fast as they can or worse yet–sinking.
But poetry is much more aggressive than that. It’s tough and combative: a bellicose art.
Poetry does offer solace, but it also sheds light—showing us what we cannot see or refuse to recognize. When we most want to cower, it is the steady eye, the unflinching stare.
Our Amherst poet, Emily Dickinson, spent much of her life in her second-story bedroom telling us how it feels to be alive and where actions may lead us.
Better than most, she understood that poetry illuminates, burns and sears. It is incandescent.
Dickinson nearly always was talking about poetry, even when she wrote about what terrified her in the darkest hour. Here’s what she said: ‘We must keep gas burning to light the danger up, so we can distinguish it.’
I think that’s why, after this election, I pull down books of poetry. We need to light the danger up, now more than ever.”
Martha Ackmann is a journalist and author who is working on a new book about Emily Dickinson. She lives in Leverett, Massachusetts.