His long white beard, shoeless feet, and old sweater catch your eye. His offbeat words and curious musical renditions draw your ears. He may make you laugh or make you think, but Sparrow, a longtime poet and activist, will definitely draw your attention.
Sponsored by the Department of English and the Hurford Center for the Arts and Humanities, Sparrow came to campus from his doublewide trailer home in Phoenicia, NY, which sits roughly 10 miles west of Woodstock. His newest work, How to Survive the Coming Collapse of Civilization (And Other Helpful Hints) is his fourth published book, and his poems and essays have been published by The New Yorker, The New York Times, Monster Trucks, The American Poetry Review, and The Sun. But Sparrow is no traditional poet. If you asked him, he might not even say he’s a “good” poet (he once even picketed outside the offices of The New Yorker in 1995 with a sign reading “My poetry is as bad as yours”). But according to him, that’s not the point.
“Could one particular poem tweeted around the world puncture the mask behind which Trump hides?” he asked his audience during a presentation called “Agility in the Age of Trump: Can Poetry Save Us?” “I don’t see why not. I encourage you to write lots of political poems, especially bad political poems, and also a lot of non-political poems, especially bad non-political poems. Here is the problem: you want to be a good poet, but you can’t write good poems. It’s too early for you. You’re not constitutionally prepared. You must write bad poems. It’s your fate.”
Such was the essence of Sparrow, whose talk centered around the question, “Can poetry save the world?” His initial answer: “I don’t know, and you don’t know.” But he also encouraged his audience (comprised largely of those he called “repeat offenders,” who also came to his on-campus poetry reading a day earlier), to lean into spontaneity, stupid thoughts, and mistakes, and to “accept the unknowability of the future.”
Sparrow was introduced by Visiting Assistant Professor of English Thomas Devaney, who opened the event by asking, “Where is the artist’s role in these moments of crisis?” Sparrow’s presentation was not so much a definite answer as a demonstration. His demeanor followed the improvisational spirit of his musings on the piano in the Multicultural Center or of his Flutophone solo that prefaced his words. He snaked through readings from an essay he wrote last fall in response to the election of Trump into sharing his “Collective Trump Poems,” which include some works written almost 10 years ago, well before the president’s rise in the political sphere.
“Trump is a tricky beast. I use that phrase precisely,” he read. “He is essentially a trickster, like many characters in folklore… Perhaps we must become tricksters to defeat the trickster. Or perhaps the opposite is true. We must be steady and mature.”
This is where the “agility” from his talk’s title comes in. In order to defeat Trump, he contends, people must be spontaneous and therefore subversive, some as “clowns,” some as “magistrates,” but all working towards a collective goal.
After his presentation, in which his low-pitched voice slowly delivered his written words, he delved into a sprawling and eccentric Q&A session with the audience. In response to audience questions, he did not spare any words or thoughts that came to mind, often catching himself by asking, “What am I saying?” and “What’s my point?” Indeed, Sparrow could be called a spontaneous and subversive artist, at times seemingly unconcerned with any existing conventions or restrictions.
Or he could be called a revolutionary: Trump’s worst nightmare, a trick to a trickster. Whatever he is, he was well received by students, faculty, and staff as he led them on a journey towards creativity and rebellion.
-Michael Weber ’19
Photo by Claire Chenyu Wang ’20