The British Prime Minister Winston Churchill during World War II reportedly quoted the great Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay’s poem “If We Must Die” when he addressed the joint houses of the U.S. Congress on the eve of America’s entry into the war.
South African President Nelson Mandela recited “Invictus,” by William Ernest Henley, to fellow inmates while imprisoned on Robben Island and “The Child” by Ingrid Jonker when South Africa’s first democratic parliament opened in 1994.
American presidents, governors, and mayors have often presented samples of some of the most luminous talents in modern literary history to provide moral and intellectual frameworks for their stated, even if not their actual, political intentions. Inauguration poets James Dickey, Maya Angelou, and Elizabeth Alexander are a few examples. However, the oversized gap between poetic passion and political expediency is one filled with a swamp of broken bureaucracies, betrayed trust, and collective disillusionment.
We cannot really say that it needs to be repaired—much like the United States’ crumbling infrastructure of rotting bridges and rusting rails–– because it has existed more as romantic notion than as concrete endeavor. Imagine if the reverse were true: that the simplistic prescription of “international friendliness” toward one another, in accordance with International PEN’s founding mandate, was applied literally by the governmental leaders of the world.
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