| George Caleb Bingham’s The County Election, 1852
It’s Election Day so we depart from the customary poet and poem of the day format for our celebration of National Poetry Month to present a trio of meditations on exercising the franchise by three iconic American poets.
Stunned? Surprised? Want to scream into your computer, “Murfin, you moron, elections aren’t until November and this is an off year when nobody is running for anything”?
Ah, but I live in Illinois which takes voting so seriously that we have two to four every year, depending on the necessity of primaries. Today is the Spring Consolidated Election when voters a lured to the polls by municipal, township, school district, park district, fire district and other assorted local taxing bodies plus various referenda.
It isn’t even close, Illinois has more elected bodies and officials than any other state, ergo more elections. Despite the official fondness of elections, if 15% of registered voters participate it will be considered a heavy turn-out. Neither the colorful signs that have popped up in yards and along roadsides across the country nor the pages of endorsement letters to the editor in the Northwest Herald have made most folks more than dimly aware that there are contests.
With so many different races on the ballot, these elections often turn into what I call friends and family affairs—only the friends and family of the candidates and a handful cranks and single-issue voters bother to show up. I know. I ran in this election two different times over the years—for Crystal Lake City Council and Nunda Township Board—and had my ass handed to me both times. Small family and not nearly enough friends.
It’s hard work trying to be an informed voter in so many races. Even a local political junkie like me can’t really keep track. This time out there is only one tax related county wide referendum—for the establishment of yet another taxing body to fund services for the developmentally disabled—to drive the no-taxes-any-time-for-any-reason zealots to the polls. No one expects the referendum to pass despite the fact that Illinois is dead last in funding services to that population and that the state budget crisis is stripping what little money is available.
The hottest race is, for all things, the McHenry County Community College Board in which there is a cavalry charge of candidates all worked up about expansion plans and—you guessed it—possible future tax hikes.
Anyway we salute those who enter the lists and those who can be stirred from apathy and lethargy to get a little American Flag “I Voted” sticker slapped on their coats with these poems. A thank you to About.com for a handy selection that popped up with the easy entry of Election Day poems in the search engine.
First, the 19th Century Quaker Poet John Greenleaf Whittier serves up an idealized picture of bucolic democracy.
The Poor Voter on Election Day
The proudest now is but my peer,
The highest not more high;
To-day, of all the weary year,
A king of men am I.
To-day alike are great and small,
The nameless and the known
My palace is the people’s hall,
The ballot-box my throne!
Who serves to-day upon the list
Beside the served shall stand;
Alike the brown and wrinkled fist,
The gloved and dainty hand!
The rich is level with the poor,
The weak is strong to-day;
And sleekest broadcloth counts no more
Than homespun frock of gray.
To-day let pomp and vain pretense
My stubborn right abide;
I set a plain man’s common sense
Against the pedant’s pride.
To-day shall simple manhood try
The strength of gold and land
The wide world has not wealth to buy
The power in my right hand!
While there’s a grief to seek redress,
Or balance to adjust,
Where weighs our living manhood less
Than Mammon’s vilest dust, —
While there’s a right to need my vote
A wrong to sweep away,
Up! clouted knee and ragged coat!
A man’s a man to-day!
—John Greenleaf Whittier
Next we have the rapid reappearance of yesterday’s featured poet, Vachel Lindsay who is proud to explain his vote.
Why I Voted the Socialist Ticket
I am unjust, but I can strive for justice.
My life’s unkind, but I can vote for kindness.
I, the unloving, say life should be lovely.
I, that am blind, cry out against my blindness.
Man is a curious brute — he pets his fancies —
Fighting mankind, to win sweet luxury.
So he will be, tho’ law be clear as crystal,
Tho’ all men plan to live in harmony.
Come, let us vote against our human nature,
Crying to God in all the polling places
To heal our everlasting sinfulness
And make us sages with transfigured faces.
And finally, another of my favorite poets, William Carlos Williams, the Unitarian obstetrician/gynecologist from Patterson, New Jersey who in the mid-20th Century made note of one who did not rush to the polls.
Warm sun, quiet air
an old man sits
in the doorway of
a broken house—
boards for windows
from between the stones
and strokes the head
of a spotted dog
—William Carlos Williams