The sound and silence of the US election

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Silence. It is undoubtedly the biggest threat to democracy: as a political system that hails the involvement of its people it is integral that everyone gets involved. Yet, what is deeply troubling is that this had to be said during an election campaign fraught with tension – the 2020 US election was unlike any other. With the results floating in recent memory and indeed some still coming through, people across the globe feel relief. Many have described the feeling of Trump’s loss as akin to being able to breathe again after four years of social, political, and, yes, emotional turmoil.

Upon my reading, I chanced upon American Rhapsody by Kenneth Fearing, which best summed my feelings about the results. Fearing’s work may not be an obvious choice for poetry about electoral victory: pushed aside to relative obscurity, he and his troupe of “proletarian poets” later went on to inspire a swathe of blue-collar artists such as Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. But, apart from this legacy, he also wrote in the turbulent waters of economic uncertainty as well as the threat of authoritarianism. 

What if that threat of authoritarianism is homegrown? Fearing portrays a regenerative moment pertinent to a post-Trump America as much of American Rhapsody is about heralding a new age. Laden with images of victory much like that seen on the streets after Trump’s loss, the opening line hails new beginnings as the speaker proclaims, “Tomorrow, yes, tomorrow/ there will suddenly be a new success”. The emphasis – at least on the surface – is on celebration, as “Rockets, rockets, Roman candles, flares, will burst in every/corner of the night”. Images of fireworks exploding in the air in a triumphant exhortation of victory undoubtedly remind us of the streets of New York a few nights ago.

There are calls to noise again, voicing the revival and reanimation of what seemed to be a dying democracy.

Yet one of the most fascinating images that Fearing renders is the conflict between silence and sound or stagnation and action, contrasts which he threads throughout his poem. The speaker proclaims that “There will be the sound of silvery thunder again to drown the insane silence” and “a new tremendous sound will shatter the final unspoken/ question and drown the last, mute, terrible reply”. Images of silence are almost exclusively fraught with tension. Reflecting the moments of mass disenfranchisement and silencing that occurred during the Trump administration, there are calls to noise again, voicing the revival and reanimation of what seemed to be a dying democracy (much like the efforts to increase turnout this year).

But the apparent simplicity of this poem is deceptive: Fearing needles through veins of uncertainty. As the speaker celebrates new beginnings, he cautions us that the fireworks which cloak the night sky with celebration veils both “the nothingness that waits and waits” and “the deep, black, empty, / terrible bottom of the world”. There is a sense of despair and nihilism that mars celebratory impulses, notes of hesitancy which bring the speaker to a standstill and perhaps back to reality. The silver glosses of celebration merely work to conceal something structurally inefficient. This begs the question, what fear do these lines speak to? 

The final stanza works to complete this sentiment, and best sums up what many citizens’ reactions to the election results were:

Tomorrow, yes, tomorrow, surely we begin at last to live,

With lots and lots of laughter,

Solid silver laughter,

Laughter, with a few simple instructions, and a bona-fide

guarantee.

The main tone of this poem is one of hope, but this feeling works against uncertainty with the key word here being “surely”. These lines blend optimism with hesitancy, fitting as we both celebrate the end of Trump and anticipate what the Biden administration will bring. 

Yes, the orange-man is finally out of the White House, and that indeed is a momentous cause for celebration!

While we all sigh in relief that America may be reverting back to normal, we also have to confront what that normality will bring. Yes, the orange-man is finally out of the White House, and that indeed is a momentous cause for celebration! But with a large proportion of the American population still supporting Trump’s policies, a need to flip the senate, and fears of complacency after this electoral run, this poem reminds one not to take their foot off the gas as the battle for justice may only be half won.

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