Few things are relished more than a good parody. Elsewhere.org has a clever program that composes a new essay in postmodern theory every time the page is refreshed. When I last clicked onto the site I was given “The Circular Fruit: Lyotardist Narrative and Modern Theory” complete with sesquipedalian jargon and allusions to Derrida and Foucault. At end of every new creation is the postscript “The essay you have just seen is completely meaningless and was randomly generated by the Postmodernism Generator.”
Rob Long’s Bigly: Donald Trump in Verse (Regnery Publishing, 2017) takes a different tack. Instead of randomly assembling words, Long lifted verbatim quotes from our current president going as far back as the 1980s and changed only the formatting and punctuation to create 100 poems in free verse. The result is a collection of The Donald’s reflections on life, love, beauty, and death in a style reminiscent of Ezra Pound. Combined with fawning commentary, it is yugely hilarious.
Consider “Poorly Educated,” which is taken from Trump’s Nevada Primary victory speech in February 2016:
So we won the evangelicals.
We won with young.
We won with old.
We won with highly educated.
We won with poorly educated —
I love the poorly educated!
The Editor’s Note reads: “Few have taken Trump seriously as a Christian poet, but they should, and ‘Poorly Educated’ is a good example of why, as the repeated ‘we won’ of the first five lines becomes transformed, in Christian charity, to ‘I love the poorly educated!’ in one of his most inspiring short poems.”
There is also “The Pope”:
Can only be scared
To which the Editor’s Note reads: “We touched before on Trump as a Christian poet. In ‘The Pope’ he makes a tentative, but memorable, assertion about the Catholic faith in four pithy lines that would have been the envy of Gerard Manley Hopkins.”
Strengthening the conceit of Bigly is a Prefatory Note and Afterword by H. W. Crocker III, a Foreword by Toby Young, and an Introduction by Long. The essays extravagantly praise Trump’s modernist primitivism and compare him to Hemingway, Wallace Stevens, and Allen Ginsberg. The winking behind the hyperbole is almost audible. “The subject of these poems,” intones Long, “is Donald J. Trump the public figure, as observed by Donald J. Trump the poet. The two are not one and the same. The poet sees the man beneath the gilding. The poet reveals the man beneath the orange.”
Bigly’s contributors are laughing in their beards, as the French used to say, but they are not mean-spirited. Although most will find this light-heartedness a virtue, exceptions have already surfaced. In the New Yorker Rebecca Mead seems to think that because Bigly stops short of vilifying Trump, it is trolling for liberals. Mead cites with apparent approval Slate’s compilation of “Bushisms” because such a list is intended to belittle the misunderestimated forty-third U.S. president, but she worries that the purpose of Bigly “is to make fun of poetry itself, and by extension, the imagined reader of poetry — the kind of thoughtful, liberal intellectual who might be expected to take offense at this book’s very premise.” Who knew that poetry is only read by thoughtful liberal intellectuals? Imagined reader indeed!
Mead is wrong to conclude that poetry is Bigly’s only target. Trump is clearly in the crosshairs; the only uncertainty is whether the attention is affectionate, derisive, or a little of both. And therein lies the book’s charm, for the ambivalence creates a space that allows both Trumpers and Never Trumpers — as my own modest sampling of friends and students has confirmed — to savor the whimsical repackaging of the President’s words.
But Mead is correct in surmising that Bigly also pokes fun at contemporary poetic forms and literary criticism — though again, not with the intention of condemning them. Even lovers of modernism must concede that the genre’s fragmented and disjunctive anti-narrative is perilously similar to some of the statements of our Chief Executive and therefore ripe for parody. Consider the following two excerpts:
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
upset my sleep
I like throwing balls
into the air
And I dream
like a baby
An experienced eye can recognize the difference between the magical economy of the first, taken from “This is Just to Say” by the celebrated William Carlos Williams, and the second, an excerpt from a 1990 interview with Trump in Playboy magazine grandly entitled “Into the Air” — but how many college students could do the same? It would be interesting to disseminate the poems in Bigly without irony and observe their critical reception.
Fortunately, the makers of Bigly are not interested in humiliating anyone or exposing intellectual sanctimoniousness but in delighting the reader, and in this they have wildly succeeded. For the full effect, I recommend reading these poems aloud and with the utmost solemnity, not imitating Trump’s timbre but instead channeling the Muse at her most self-important. If you fail to be moved, you may sadly be one of the referents in Donald Trump’s magnificent poem “It”:
We need that thinking.
We have the opposite thinking.
We have losers.
We have losers.
We have people that don’t have
Michael P. Foley is an associate professor in the Great Texts Program at Baylor University and the author of Drinking with the Saints: The Sinner’s Guide to a Holy Happy Hour (Regnery, 2015). His latest book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Christianity, is just out from Regnery Publishing.