The Saving Power of Poetry: A Talk by Sparrow

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By Rachel Hertzberg, Staff Writer

In Haverford College’s Multicultural Center on Friday, Feb. 2, the poet Sparrow gave a talk entitled “Agility in the Age of Trump: Can Poetry Save Us?”

As the room filled up, Sparrow played an improvisational piece on the piano, and students, faculty, and community members settled in for an entertaining and eccentric afternoon.

Sparrow, described on his Wikipedia page as an “American poet, activist, musician, and rabble-rouser,” had given a poetry reading the previous night. Glancing at the assembled audience for his lecture, he noticed returning faces, calling them “repeat offenders.” The tone of his address continued in this self-deprecating and humorous manner.

After an introduction by Haverford English professor Thomas Devaney, Sparrow began the program with a short solo on the flutophone, a recorder-like instrument. Then, standing shoeless in front of the microphone, he launched into his prepared remarks. His address was short, but covered a variety of topics such as the power of yoga, his own past as a biology student at Cornell, and the legacy of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Sparrow admitted that he could not speak to whether poetry could act as a protective force against the recent political climate. Instead, he offered some ideas on the nature of the current administration. He suggested that Donald Trump can be viewed as a trickster, the shapeshifting agent of chaos present in the mythologies of many cultures. Some people, he explained, might respond to a trickster by becoming tricksters themselves. Others might go the opposite direction and turn to steady, mature governance in attempt to counteract the trickster. Sparrow was optimistic that these two approaches could constitute a resistance movement that could eventually defeat Trump’s ideology, although it might take a number of years.

Sparrow then offered a second mythological reading of Trump’s rise to power. Contrary to those who have called for the media to deny Trump the attention he is seeking, Sparrow said that it is unproductive to ignore or turn away from the situation. Instead, those who seek change must imitate the Greek hero Perseus. Perseus slayed the gorgon Medusa by viewing her only through a reflective shield, and in this way avoided being turned to stone. Similarly, Sparrow urged his audience to “turn away our souls from the vampiric power of Mr. Trump,” and forge ahead while refusing to be corrupted by fear. Sparrow concluded his talk by advising the audience to be brave enough to write bad poetry.

After the talk, Sparrow read a series of brief, “Collected Trump poems,” which he has been writing since around 2008. Many were just a single sentence or phrase; they were by turns hilarious, bitter, profane, and thoughtful. They dealt with themes such as racism, violence, capitalism, and even what Sparrow seems to see as a uniquely American refusal to acknowledge history.

The afternoon concluded with a lengthy question and answer session. As Sparrow put it, “No one should ever give me a microphone…I’m like a talk show host, full of opinions to foist on anyone.” Although Sparrow’s answers had little connection to the questions asked, they were delightful to listen to, full of digressions and stories of his life as a poetic rebel. A question about how to deal with Trump supporters led to a sprawling story about Sparrow’s visit to the Women’s March, which involved a cat, a defrocked priest, and two born-again Christians who offered a blessing to his daughter over the telephone. In a different tangent, Sparrow pushed back against the popular idea of Trump as a narcissist, suggesting that a narcissist would not be able to channel and imitate the energies of a crowd.

Overall, the lecture was not so much as primer on survival in the age of Trump, but rather an opportunity to hear the unique perspectives of someone who has been fighting and speaking out for much longer than the average college student has been alive.

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