Politics and Poetry: Reading (and Weeping With) Uncle Dan

    For many years now, my wife Krista and I have made a Saturday morning ritual of listening to Scott Simon's weekly interview with National Public Radio senior news analyst Daniel Schorr.  In fact, the veteran reporter's matter-of-fact yet mellifluous vocal tones are by now so familiar as to have become at last familial.  In our household Daniel Schorr is affectionately known as Uncle Dan.

    Dan Schorr is one of the last of the great old newsmen of the second half of the Twentieth Century.  Beginning as a print reporter for the Christian  Science Monitor post-WWII, he soon moved into broadcast journalism, eventually at NPR, where he's been a mainstay for the past twenty years.  Oh, and have I mentioned that he is in his mid-90s and still working?  He has become one of those elders, like Pete Seeger, to whom we look for clarity, perspective, the long view.

    No doubt for partly sentimental reasons, I've been slowly perusing Come to Think of It:  Notes on the Turn of the Millennium (Viking, 2007), a compendium of Dan Schorr's NPR broadcast pieces.  Pithy and succinct, most come in at little more than a page in length--Dan Schorr doesn't need much more than that to suggest a complexity far beyond the scale of his few minutes of air time.

    Schorr's moderately weighty tome covers the years 1990-2007.  I'm still in the 1990s, a decade I badly need reminding of as I face the current one.  It's all there, in holographic miniature, in Dan Schorr's deft sketches:  Bill and Hillary Clinton, Bosnia, aborted health care reform, NAFTA, O. J. Simpson, the Oklahoma City bombing, Ken Starr, you name it.  The whole catastrophe, as they say.  And yet it was nothing compared with the nightmarish, mud-footed morass of war-mongering and corruption of the Bush-Cheney decade.

    The 90s stretch of Dan Schorr's book is proving an especially humbling, sobering read for me, because frankly I was asleep to many of the events of those years as chronicled in Schorr's broadcasts.  I don't mean that I didn't know they were happening; I glancingly checked in with the news of the day.  But oddly little of it touched me in a particularly deep or personal way.  In effect I was insulated from the impact of events taking placing in corners of the world that were distant from my own.
    I don't think this was necessarily a matter of ego-absorption in the concerns of the self and to hell with everyone else.  It is to some extent natural for humans to be wrapped up in our own concerns to the exclusion of others.  And besides, after 1992, the good guys (sort of) were in control (sort of) for a while.  I have, since that somnambulant decade, become often painfully aware of a general tendency on my part to be tough on Republican administrations while giving Democratic administrations an undeserved pass.  Though I stand by criticisms I've leveled against the Nixon, Reagan and Bush regimes--collectively, it's a miracle the country has survived them--I have to admit that I've generally stayed more politically awake and civically active during times of Republican than Democratic administrations.

    Reagan and George W. Bush were both historical disasters for the American people, but Clinton--though not in the same class--wasn't so great either.  Now that a year in the saddle has worn off some of the stardust, Obama doesn't appear quite the progressive savior we'd hoped for in 2008.  This is not to say he isn't infinitely preferable to his predecessor, not to mention the current GOP, which has gone so far off the deep end it deserves to be called the Ridiculous Party.  But in mid-2010 the Obama administration is looking a lot like a somewhat improved version of the Clinton administration.
    Of course this is not entirely Obama's fault; the problem is chronic and systemic.  Dan Schorr's chronicle testifies again and again to the persistence of certain self-defeating cycles in American policy-making, as when, commenting on May 3, 1993, on Clinton's decision to enter the Bosnian conflict, he observes ". . . riding on it is the risk of American involvement in a foreign war that could stymie President Clinton's plans for American renewal as Vietnam undermined President Johnson's Great Society program." (p. 44)  The stymiers have been especially busy in recent years.

    I admit to finding a certain grim amusement in listening to the Tea Party going on and on about President Obama's supposed "socialism," while, in fact, he is merely the latest in a line of private-sector corporatists, both Democrat and Republican, who have ruled overwhelmingly on behalf of moneyed interests.  The return to Republican rule the Tea Partiers generally seem to crave would have tragic consequences for the shrinking middle class.  Democrats, although part of the "corporatocracy," clearly care more about the middle and lower classes than do their Republican counterparts.  On that recognition I have based my own long-term if wobbly support of the Dems.

    I suppose almost everyone becomes more complacent when Their Guy is in office.  You just feel better overall when your party is in power; then all -- or at least more -- seems right with the world, and the pretense of Business-as-Usual can be maintained with less cognitive dissonance.  When the Will of the People, as you approve it, is being carried out in Washington, it can appear that things are better than they actually are.  You focus on the positive -- such as the euphoric absence, at the turn of the Millennium, of Y2K mayhem -- and tune out the negative -- for instance the fact that despite the presence of a strong environmental advocate like Al Gore, the Clinton administration did practically nothing to address climate change.

    As a struggling younger poet in the 80s and 90s, I seldom engaged the overtly political in my work.  I preferred to keep my politics beneath the surface of my poems.  I imagined that, with a little reflection, any perceptive reader could detect them, though I may have assumed wrongly.

    For better or worse, I became much more explicitly "political" both as a poet and as a citizen after the Supreme Court awarded the presidency to George W. Bush in 2000.  Some readers still begrudge politics a place in poetry; I disagree.  I've made room in both my recent collections, Waking Before Dawn (2007) and The Foot of the Rainbow (2010), for political utterance as a part of the sum total of human experience I try to bring into my work.  In Waking Before Dawn, "August Stars," rooted in the dispiriting darkness of the Bush era, supplied the overarching metaphor for the whole book:

     A shooting star
     flares low
     on the horizon,
     sizzles out,
     a wish reserved
     for those awake
     on a troubled planet
     before dawn.

Returning to political consciousness during the direst moments of the Bush siege felt exactly like waking in shock at 4 a.m. to find the sky still black, though not without its guiding lights (Uncle Dan among them).

    The title of my new book, The Foot of the Rainbow, posits imagistically a cautious optimism for our new decade.  In that collection, "Winter of 2007," based on the Mideastern ghazal form in which the poet addresses him- or herself by name, revolves around the recognition that "Thomas, you woke earlier than some, later than others."  I'm not done with this subject, nor is it done with me.  In an as yet unfinished poem, the following stanza reprises the theme of loss of consciousness during the Clinton era:

     In my forties, with America, I hit the snooze
     bar and went back to sleep.  The President
     played saxophone, and life was good, that is
     if you didn't look too hard at the planet.

    These snippets of poetry don't begin to get at the real grief of our unconsciousness and its consequences.  Since 2000, I've been acutely aware of a particular shame most of us must feel -- albeit on a subconscious level -- at our negligence in protecting the planet that is our sustenance and only home.  I experience that shame anew with each photo coming out of the Gulf of Mexico these days.  The eye of the pelican, staring out at us from oil-slicked feathers, is a blazing emblem of our collective failure and unwillingness to live appropriately on the earth.

    While it is painful to be awake, it is far more harmful for us to go on sleeping through the disasters of our age.  As the poet William Stafford wrote, "It is important that awake people be awake."

    These days I'm trying to be more awake to our political system's betrayals and deceptions as a whole.  I am determined not to minimize the Democratic Party's contribution to our present unsustainable position, though I still applaud wholeheartedly a few Democratic leaders of integrity such as Russell Feingold and David Obey, to name two of Wisconsin's finest.  Along the way, I am reading with both pleasurable and painful recognition Daniel Schorr's reckoning with a decade in which I and so many others found it more convenient to reach over to steal another five minutes from the alarm clock than to rise to the urgent and exacting work of citizenship.  Thanks for staying awake through the whole catastrophe, Uncle Dan.

(Note:  I didn't intend this to be a eulogy, but a little over a month after I posted this entry, Daniel Schorr died on July 24 in Washington after a brief illness.  In the media coverage of Dan Schorr's death, it's been frequently noted that he made Richard Nixon's notorious enemy list, a fact Dan discovered only while actually reading that list over the air during the Watergate hearings.  He wrote, "I managed not to gasp.  I broke into a big sweat.  This was the most electrifying moment of my career."  May we all live in such a way as to act as similar irritants to the tyrants and fascists of our time.  Rest assured, Uncle Dan.  Your voice will not be forgotten.) 

Recent Entries

The Peculiar Music of the Prose Poem
I've come to believe that the prose poem may be defined as much by its degree of relative musicality…
Ode to Joan Baez
(To honor the conjunction of two Capricorn birthdays, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on January 15 and Joan Baez on…
Trump and the "Anti-Life Ego": Reading Robert Moore's FACING THE DRAGON in 2017
Note:  This essay was originally written for the "Real Words: Real Men" blog on the Minnesota Men's Conference website.  Dr.…