Jamaal Bowman’s Very Bad Poetry

Photo of author
Written By Pinang Driod

The critic Harold Bloom once declared that former President Jimmy Carter, the author of a book of verse titled Always a Reckoning, was “literally the worst poet in the United States.” Bloom wisely died in 2019, thereby avoiding having to read the poetry of another politician, Representative Jamaal Bowman of New York, a member of the “Squad.” Bowman’s selected poetic works came to light yesterday. He apparently kept a blog in the 2010s, before his election to Congress in 2020. The Daily Beast recently discovered it and published a “composition” in free verse, which at times seems to endorse nutty conspiracy theories. “Later in the day / Building 7 / Also Collaspsed [sic] / Hmm … / Multiple explosions / Heard before / And during the collapse / Hmm …” He refers approvingly to Zeitgeist, a film series that was briefly popular among morons credulous enough to believe conspiracy theories about the Federal Reserve, but whose minds were not yet sufficiently tenderized that they sold their possessions to follow Alex Jones. Bowman told The Daily Beast that he had been “processing” his thoughts in public, and he now regrets posting them.

The poetry is awfully sincere and sincerely awful. Bowman’s closest inspiration is probably Amiri Baraka, whose later poetry took up the same themes (“Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed / Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers / To stay home that day”). One could even trace the influence in a roundabout way to Ezra Pound. Pound’s disciple Eustace Mullins wrote a classic demented tract about the Fed in 1952, under Pound’s guidance during the poet’s involuntary commitment to an insane asylum. Literary scholars might classify Bowman as an unusually late modernist.

I feel embarrassed for Bowman, and indeed for anyone who gets a call from a reporter that begins “I found poetry you posted online a decade ago …” But I also feel a strange new fondness and respect for the representative. The remnants of this blog, mortifying in style and content, are also naked in their honesty—an intellectual full monty that shows not only what Bowman thought but how he thought at the age of 35. We should ask all politicians to reveal themselves this way.

What, after all, is the purpose of subjecting them, and us, to an election campaign? It is partly an emotional and physical stress test, to find out whether the candidate cracks under scrutiny and pressure. It is also a cognitive stress test, to see whether the candidate slips up in some more Freudian way—by offhandedly emitting a racial epithet, say, as then–Virginia Governor George Allen did in his 2006 race against Jim Webb for Senate; or by getting caught in lies and exaggerations, as many other politicians have. The purpose of the campaign is to expose, through massive, crowdsourced vetting, what the politician wants to conceal. Candidates who write creatively speed this process along.

Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo once said, “We campaign in poetry but we govern in prose.” Would that we campaigned in either! A cache of writings like Bowman’s is an uncommonly intimate record for a politician. Most candidates carefully manage their image and avoid expressing sentiments that might lose them votes. At its extreme, this unnatural state of affairs is self-defeating, because voters are actually quite good at discerning which candidates are calculating and robotic and then exiling them to an uncanny valley of rejected politicians who they suspect are not quite human. Put enough cyborgs on the ballot, and voters long for a human with familiar, recognizably human faults. Donald Trump lied, but the kind of lies he told was the type everyone expected, after decades of witnessing his greed and dishonesty. He was like the men in the Kipling poem, whose chief virtue is that even if they are rogues, they are known rogues:

The men of my own stock

They may do ill or well

But they tell the lies I am wanted to

They are used to the lies I tell.

In the modern era, many voters seem to expect candidates to open their minds for inspection. Some so-called populists open themselves simply by talking nonstop, at a rate so compulsive that they do not have time to think up lies. Take Javier Milei, the recently elected Argentine president. Even his enemies do not think he has a secret agenda. No one could spend decades spouting libertarian dogma so consistently without believing it.

So our system encourages cyborgs and narcissists, and it actively selects against people who are psychologically normal. Only rarely do such people evade the filters. One interesting category of exception is the war hero, a candidate who once, under great duress, acted with such extreme valor that none could question it going forward.

But another could be the candidates who have dared, at some point in their adult life, to write, revealing who they are. (And I don’t mean a “campaign book,” which is of course actually written by the prosthetic self known as the ghostwriter.) Bloom told The New Yorker that Barack Obama’s undergraduate poetry contained “pathos and humor and affection,” and “humane and sad wit.” A reader of Obama’s first book would have known more about the future president’s mind than an obsessive CNN viewer during the 2008 campaign cycle. Obama was a talented writer, but even a talentless one can demonstrate his true self beyond doubt: Carter’s poetry will chloroform you with boredom if read even in medium doses, but before you lose consciousness, you’ll know beyond a doubt what the former president really thinks about God, decency, and earthly justice. Voters who want humans rather than cyborgs governing them will have to accept that the poetry will usually be execrable, which is to say, written by humans.

Bowman’s poetry shows that at the age of 35, he thought about his race, his family, and his country, and felt angst over his obligations to them. I suspect that his constituents will forgive him, if not reelect him, on that basis alone. He also seems to have had wrong beliefs about almost everything. I hope he repudiates them. But I also hope aspiring politicians take the right lessons from his errors. The wrong lesson is that candidates should turn themselves into robots as early as possible, just to be safe. The right lesson is that if they want to demonstrate that they are, contrary to appearances, members of the human species, they might consider writing a little poetry now and then. Maybe stick to early Pound and Langston Hughes, though, when looking for inspiration.

Graeme Wood is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of The Way of the Strangers: Encounters With the Islamic State.


Leave a Comment