In the days and weeks following the latest U.S. election, poetry listicles began to mushroom. It’s clear that we look to poetry in times of crisis. It’s also clear why: The poems that have been emerging offer inspiration, hope, resolve, a sense of history, and the spirit of resistance. Poetry reminds us that we are a strong community. “There is always a way through the ‘Wall,’” Juan Felipe Herrera states in the introduction to Boston Review’s chapbook Poems for Political Disaster. Literature celebrates our individual and collective lives. Edwidge Danticat, in “Poetry in a Time of Protest,” says of the inaugural speech that it “was dark, rancorous, unnuanced” and that “afterward, I wanted to fall into a poet’s carefully crafted, insightful, and at times elegiac words.” In addition to acting as a mirror, poetry can function as a window into experiences we haven’t had. As Don Share reminds us: “It’s a way of listening. When you’re reading a poem, you’re listening to what someone else is thinking and feeling and saying.” Poetry puts us in someone else’s shoes in order to find out that we’re not that different after all.
In short, poetry can be a refuge. It’s a place to recharge, check-in, get real, and get ready. And these days, we have to be ready to hold two conflicting ideas at once. Essayists Aleksandar Hemon and Stephen Burt have each pointed out that crisis can cleave the mind. In an article reflecting on what has changed in the world and what therefore must change in his own reading and writing, Stephen Burt artfully explains the nearly-Baroque style his poems have embodied in the past, something he associates with “the femme, the elaborate, the playful, the serifed, the feathered, the self-consciously involute, the magenta and the chartreuse, even the ornamental: ruffles, dessert.” The rise of Trump, however, brings Trump’s version of ornamentation, which shifts the cultural connotations. His “is the wrong kind of rococo: not delicate craftsmanship as a blow to misogyny, but the gilding of every conceivable surface, the flaunting of a wealth he has used to hurt others, as a boastful public spectacle.” Burt continues, “It is possible to imagine human progress—to imagine that we can make things better—and it is possible to imagine historical continuity—a future along the same lines as the recent past—but it is no longer possible for me to hold in mind both things at once.” In this reflection on reading and writing practices, Burt echoes the internal crisis many of us are experiencing. We’re inhabiting two irreconcilable worlds—the imperfect past and the uncertain present.
Aleksandar Hemon points out that in times like these, our minds straddle a wide chasm. We hold onto both of these realities at the same time, the present world and the past world, and they are incompatible. Drawing on his experiences in the build-up to the Bosnian War, he describes the difficulty of processing the new reality: “The unified, ontologically comfortable mind splits: On the one hand, the pre-war mind refuses the possibility of catastrophe; on the other, the war mind perceives everything as the signal that the end of the world is nigh.” Many folks are now struggling to balance between the future they thought they would be living in and the present that is not that future. This doubling is problematic, and is another reason to turn to poetry in times of crisis. Poetry not only gives us the inspiration to resist, it can give us tools for the resistance: we can train our ears to hear the undercurrents in doublespeak.
In an article called “Lyric Cryptography,” John Shoptaw lays out his theory that poems are chock-full of words that are not actually on the page. Like a webpage with digital Easter eggs, poems are littered with thinly-veiled other words. In Shoptaw’s argument, the surface level of language contains echoes to other texts, common phrases, and even jumbled configurations of proper names. Sounds, visual cues, or associations within the text produce these deeper resonances. Shoptaw contends that “poetic sound doesn’t just echo or underscore or undercut or otherwise pattern the sense but actually helps produce poetic meaning, so that the sense seems an afterthought to the sound,” rather than Pope’s adage that the sound should be an echo to the sense.
He’s careful to point out that this doesn’t mean that anything goes. The crypt word has to fit within the context or content of the poem, though it doesn’t have to come from the author’s intent. Active reading produces these crypt words; they are discovered through the reader’s deep listening. As one example, Shoptaw points to John Ashbery’s formulation “long piers of silence” in “If the Birds Knew,” which acts as a vehicle for the crypt phrase “long periods of silence.” In another example, Shoptaw’s sharp analysis shows how Allen Ginsberg’s phrase “starving hysterical naked” in “Howl” shelters two crypt phrases: “stark raving mad” and “stark naked.” In Emily Dickinson’s poem that begins “Apparently as no surprise,” Shoptaw hears “blind assassin” in the passage, “the blonde Assassin passes on.”
A part of Shoptaw’s argument is that, because this practice originates with the reader rather than the writer, crypt words occur in all kinds of poetry, from traditional verse to experimental work. Still, there are perhaps some poems that more readily lend themselves to this type of treasure hunt. One book with all sorts of linguistic secret passages is Julia Bloch’s Valley Fever (Sidebrow Books 2015). Concealment is a theme in the book. Southern California and the Central Valley feature prominently, complete with the smog that hangs in those environs. It’s even on the cover. The table of contents hides things, too: though there are upwards of sixty poems in the book, only the three sections titles are listed (The Selfist, Haze, and Allison Corporation), a move which both emulates the haze and signals cryptographic catacombs.
The lyric cryptography begins right away. The first poem, “Welcome Abroad,” references Pierre Bonnard’s painting, “Siesta,” which is now housed at the National Gallery of Victoria: “Bonnard’s nude happened in the past, she is / on the bed with red threads, / she was once owned by Stein.” The poem toys with the idea of moving between nations, or belonging in a national sense, which makes “abroad” a natural fit. As the opening poem in the book, though, it’s tough not to hear an echo of “welcome aboard” in the title. The written phrase and crypt phrase aptly toggle between the local and international travel that alternates throughout the book.
The title of the book, Valley Fever, alludes to very localized travel: that of a dust particle moving into the lungs, causing a fungal infection. The title poem begins with the line, “I’ve been tearing at my cubicle,” a line that harbors the crypt word “cuticle,” and that conflates the worry that leads one to rend one’s own flesh with the open office design of late capitalism. Many of Bloch’s poems contain this system of sonic signals. “The Tight Pants of the Arts,” for example, ends with the lines
Decades go on. We’ll catch up
eventually. Meanwhile let’s overcook
the food, let’s clutter up our salads
and your upright face.
It’s a trick created by the line break that the eye lands on “even” right after “we’ll catch up.” But more strikingly, who’s ever heard of an “upright” face? The idea of cluttering up a face brings to mind the compressed features of an uptight person. Bloch’s poetry foregrounds the unexpected with a sonic nod to the word we thought would be there. Her poetry’s asking us to attend to our ears and listen beyond the surface of words.
Studying dense language is an act of political resistance, particularly in a moment when misinformation, doublespeak, and fake news abound. The slow, deep attention that this manner of reading demands can help us to decode what’s going on in the world around us. Shoptaw points out that, “There is also, then, such a thing as cryptography in everyday life. Innumerable examples could be cited from advertising copy, shop names, and book titles.” It’s particularly important now to be conscious of the cryptography in our everyday lives.
Take, for example, the term “extreme vetting.” This is what the Trump administration would like people to say when referring to his executive order. In a recent episode of This American Life, an Immigration expert with the Hoover Institution, Tim Kane (not the former Vice President candidate) called it a “marketing term.” It’s a marketing term that contains crypt words. In case the wording within the executive order itself doesn’t clearly enough point to its religious motivation, and in case the President’s own words about the ban during his campaign and his inner circle’s insistence that Trump is keeping his campaign promises is not enough of a signal about the order’s intent, perhaps the crypt word can clarify. The word “extremism” is embedded like a dog-whistle in the President’s name for this order barring immigrants from seven mostly-Muslim countries while providing exemptions for religious minorities of those countries (non-Muslims). Talk of extremism in the Middle East is so often coupled with the word “Islamic,” that it’s tough not to hear an echo of religion in the order’s title. The term Trump has chosen resounds the extremist stance of his order.
I don’t mean to insinuate that lyric cryptography can hold up in a court of law, but this active reading practice can help us better understand what’s behind the rhetoric. Neither do I want to suggest that we should turn to reading poetry only as an act of political vigilance. Studying lyric cryptography is an act of resistance because of what it can reveal in the news cycle, but it’s also an act of resistance because cryptographic revelation in poetry is joyful. And, as Rebecca Solnit points out, “Joy doesn’t betray but sustains activism. And when you face a politics that aspires to make you fearful, alienated, and isolated, joy is a fine initial act of insurrection.” Or, in Kaveh Akbar’s words, “aligning yourself with wonder in a time that actively conspires against it is political." With this kind of reading practice, we can exercise both varieties of resistance.
Laura Wetherington’s first book, A Map Predetermined and Chance (Fence Books 2011), was selected by C.S. Giscombe for the National Poetry Series. The Brooklyn Rail called the book “humble, folksy, romantic, tough, inventive, and not over-programmed.” She has published two chapbooks:Dick Erasures (Red Ceilings Press 2011) and a collaboration with Jill Darling and Hannah Ensor, at the intersection of 3 (Dancing Girl Press 2014). Her poem “No one wants to be the victim no one when there is a gun involved and blue” is now an artist book created by Inge Bruggeman.