Yesterday I read Martin Espada’s “Republic of Poetry;” from his poetry collection with the same title.
The last stanza is telling:
In the Republic of Poetry
the guard at the airport
will not let you leave the country
until you declaim a poem for her.
and she says, Ah! Beautiful.
I had not closely read Espada until I ran across his essay titled “Filthy Presidentiad: Walt Whitman in the Age of Trump” that appears in a recent issue of Poetry. As someone who values a number of Whitman poems and his influence on American poetry (and some of my own poems), Espada’s essay struck me a crucial and necessary read at this particular moment in time. That led me to look for Espada’s books at the bookshop where I work, but not one was in stock. Looking online, I picked up several of his titles as ebooks and ordered print copies of others, along with his anthology, What Saves Us: Poems of Empathy and Outrage in the Age of Trump. It’s obvious that Espada, a native of America’s unrecognized state, Puerto Rico, is not a fan of the current American president, but he is also one of our nation’s finest and most highly honored poets, one whose works have been compared to the poems of Pablo Neruda. His anthology may look like a collection of political rants based on the title; however, the book is anything but. It is a collection of good to great poems of social consciousness from many of today’s best American poets.
Many poets will tell you that the world today would be a much better and more humane place if everyone read poetry and if there was a greater emphasis on poetry in our schools. Despite many popular (mis)readings of Plato’s Republic, that notion is not new. (I happen to think Plato would be a fan of Espada’s anthology.) Back during the English Renaissance—during the time when white England went about the business of colonizing and enslaving much of the colored world—Sir Philip Sidney wrote An Apology for Poetry in which he suggested the purpose of poetry is to make a brazen world golden. I’m not sure if the word poetry in those days also served as a synonym for English rifles and canons, but the basic sentiment Sydney expresses is in line with Espada’s poem. After all, if the president and all the folks in government read a poem by Whitman and other relevant poets each day there’s a good chance we would not be in the socio-political mess the country finds itself in at this very moment. Espada’s The Republic of Poetry now sits on my bookshelf next to my copy of John Kennedy Tool’s A Confederacy of Dunces, a novel in which poetry does not play a role.