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Taylor Swift’s poem for Vogue: a close-reading

This poem feels like it was written specifically to be quoted by the blonde lead in a Nicholas Sparks movie, which is also the most Taylor Swift thing I can think of.

Taylor Swift doesn’t do interviews any more. But she would quite like to be in a glossy fashion magazine if it’s cool enough. This presents us with a conundrum. How do you get into a big, high-status publication without having to be questioned in any way, shape, or form? The answer – write a poem and be done with it!

Yep, Vogue have allowed Taylor Swift to grace their cover in exchange for 31 lines of what some may call poetry! Or, in Vogue’s own words, they have bagged “the world-class lyricist’s stunning words on the timely subject of reinvention and moving on”. It’s called “The Trick to Holding On”, and you can read the poem in full at Vogue, or below, as we give it a full analysis.

We have four stanzas, all of eight lines except the second, which has seven. There’s no formal rhyme scheme to speak of, but we get a few random rhyming lines here and there, which is nice. The poem opens with quite a forceful metre that quickly dissolves into totally free verse. It’s message is: to hold on to your life, your sanity, and your sense of self, you have to let go of people who upset you, that drift apart from you, and that let you down. It’s a little defensive, nostalgic, faux-wise and trite, which is to say, it’s exactly as you’d imagine it to be.

Let go of the ones who hurt you 
Let go of the ones you outgrow
Let go of the words they hurl your way 
as you’re walking out the door 

Wow. We begin with some textbook anaphora, and in the imperative mood, no less. It’s a pretty sombre tone. It might remind you of some of the great funeral poems: Christina Rossetti’s “Remember”, “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep” by Mary Elizabeth Frye, WH Auden’s “Funeral Blues” (“Stop all the clocks…”) and “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas – if those poems were about getting mad at a pop star for stealing dancers or Kim Kardashian leaking recordings of private phone calls.

It might also remind you of the e. e. cummings poem “let it go – the”, if it were written in full sentences, with hearts dotting the “i”s. (That poem encourages the reader to “let go” of “the truthful liars, “the false fair friends” and “the oath cracked” – so, basically the most Taylor Swift phrases you’ve ever heard.) The difference, of course, is that this poem is more of an inspirational cross-stitch bookmark than a poem.

Anyway, classic Swiftian concerns from the start: haters, betrayal, doors (Taylor Swift loves doors, man), and a mysterious, tyrannous “they”, always out to get her.

The only thing cut and dry 
In this hedge-maze life 
Is the fact that their words will cut 
but your tears will dry 

Here Swift takes the common or garden expression “cut and dry” – final, decided, settled, definite – and is like, well, you know the only thing in life that’s CUT AND DRY??? The fact that words CUT but tears DRY. THE EXPERIENCE OF PAIN IS INHERENT IN THE HUMAN CONDITION – BUT SO TOO, IS HEALING. Oh, AND ALSO: LIFE IS A MAZE (or “hedge-maze”, because I’m a classy bitch), NOT A STRAIGHTFORWARD PATH!!! Words to live by.

They don’t tell you this when you are young
You can’t hold on to everything 
Can’t show up for everyone 
You pick your poison 
Or your cure 
Phone numbers you know by heart 
And the ones you don’t answer any more

We’re back to that “they” – which has now seemingly shifted from all the bad people who are trying to ruin your life, to adults who should be giving better advice. (Either way, they suck.)

We get our first little hint of a rhyme here, in cure/more – linking not answering the phone to toxic people with healing, and reversely framing the compulsion to remember a full phone number as a kind of poison.

Any sense of regularly or metre fully collapses here – instead we get these overlong lines opening and closing the stanza, getting shorter towards the middle, isolating “Or your cure” as the big – dun dun dunnn – dramatic moment of the verse. Guys, you can CHOOSE your cure! Choose healing! Let go!

This verse is one line shorter than all the others. I tried to find a reason for this (Seven numbers in a phone number? Uh…. It’s the most powerful magical number?!) but I really don’t think there is one.

Hold on to the faint recognition in 
the eye of a stranger 
As it catches you in its lustrous net 
How quickly we become intertwined 
How wonderful it is to forget 
All the times your intuition failed you 
But it hasn’t killed you yet
Hold on to childlike whims and moonlight swims and your blazing self-respect 

Possibly the weirdest section of the whole thing. I’m not sure if this is an actual stranger, or a long lost acquaintance who’s become a stranger, or whether the recognition is real or imagined. I also don’t know what a “lustrous net” is or would look like, or how an eye can have one. I don’t know how self-respect can blaze. I’m very confused, basically. Also, Taylor Swift has read Joan Didion, and she don’t care who knows it!!!!

There are lots of words here that it feels like Swift has chosen because they are “poetic”: “lustrous”, “intertwined”, “blazing”. Images, too: “the eye of a stranger” “childlike whims”, “moonlight swims”. The result is a tangle of mixed metaphors that feels like it was written specifically to be quoted by the blonde lead in a Nicholas Sparks movie, which is also the most Taylor Swift thing I can think of.

Meanwhile, we have the most rhyming of all here (net/forget/yet, whims/swims), and some of the most regular metre, as if Swift is really getting into it – or slipping back into the rhythm of song writing. The four lines that begin “How quickly…” would make sense as a little verse on their own, with a cute nursery rhyme scheme and metre (if it wasn’t for that irritating “it” in the fourth line) but then it dissolves again.

And if you drive the roads of this town
Ones you’ve gone down so many times before 
Flashback to all the times
Life nearly ran you off the road 
But tonight your hand is steady 

If there’s one thing I know, it’s that Taylor Swift fucking loves a flashback. “Love Story” begins with a flashback to a “balcony in summer air”, “Forever & Always” is about the “flashback to when he said forever and always”. There are flashbacks in “If This Was a Movie”, “Red” and, most recently, “Dress”. Other shit she loves: driving metaphors (“Red”, “Treacherous”, “Style”, “Getaway Car”). This might be both meaningless and cliché-ridden – but it sure is her.

Suddenly you’ll know 
The trick to holding on
Was all that letting go 

The dénouement! Who coulda seen it coming?! Not me. Someone typewrite this onto buff paper and tastefully lie some cigarettes on top of it – stat!

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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“I want the state to think like an anarchist”: Dutch historian Rutger Bregman on why the left must reclaim utopianism

The Dutch thinker advocates global open borders, a universal basic income and a 15-hour working week. 

History consists of the impossible becoming the inevitable. Universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the welfare state were all once dismissed as fantastical dreams. But in the Western world, politics today often feels devoid of the idealism and ambition of previous generations. As the mainstream left has struggled to define its purpose, the right has offered superficially seductive solutions (from Brexit to border walls).

One of those seeking to resolve what he calls a “crisis of imagination” is the Dutch historian and journalist Rutger Bregman. His book Utopia for Realists advocates policies including a universal basic income (a guaranteed minimum salary for all citizens), a 15-hour working week and global open borders. Since its publication last year, Bregman’s manifesto has been translated into more than 20 languages, establishing him as one of Europe’s pre-eminent young thinkers.

“I was born in 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and people of my generation were taught that utopian dreams are dangerous,” Bregman recalled when we met for coffee at the London office of his publisher Bloomsbury. A softly-spoken but forceful character, dressed casually in a light blue jacket, jeans and Nike Air trainers, Bregman continued: “It seemed that the age of big ideas was over. Politics had just become technocracy and politicians just managers.”

Bregman’s imagination was fired by anarchist thinkers such as the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin. He identifies with the left libertarian tradition, which emphasises individual freedom from both market and state domination. Another formative influence was Russell Jacoby, Bregman’s history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose book The Last Intellectuals (2000) lamented the decline of the polymath in an era of academic specialisation. Utopia for Realists, a rigorously argued and lucidly written work, fuses insights from history, politics, philosophy and economics. Bregman echoes Oscar Wilde’s sentiment: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

Such romanticism partly filled the void left by Bregman’s loss of religious faith at the age of 18 (his father was a Protestant minister in the church opposite the family home in Zoetermeer, western Netherlands). “Maybe utopianism is my form of religion in a world without God,” Bregman mused.

For him, utopia is not a dogma to be ruthlessly imposed but a liberating and inclusive vision. It would be “completely ludicrous”, Bregman remarked, for a Western politician to suddenly propose global open borders. Rather, such ideals should animate progressive reforms: one could call it incremental utopianism.

“History will tell you that borders are not inevitable, they hardly existed at the end of the 19th century,” Bregman observed. “And the data is behind me.” Economists liken the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” and estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent.

The thoughtful Conservative MP Nick Boles recently objected to a universal basic income on the grounds that “mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging”.

Bregman did not dispute this but argued for a radical redefinition of work. “A YouGov poll in 2015 found that 37 per cent of British workers think their own job is absolutely meaningless,” he noted. Rather than such “bullshit jobs” (to use the anthropologist David Graeber’s phrase), work should be defined as “doing something of value, making this world a little more interesting, richer, beautiful – whether that’s paid or unpaid doesn’t really matter.”

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman decries “underdog socialism”: a left that is defined by what it is against (austerity, privatisation, racism), rather than what it is for. How does he view the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn? “Most of the ideas are sensible but they’re a bit old-fashioned, it felt like stepping into a time machine,” Bregman said of the 2017 Labour manifesto (which majored on renationalisation). Yet he recognised that Corbyn had expanded the limits of the possible. “All this time, people were saying that Labour shouldn’t become too radical or it will lose votes. The election showed that, in fact, Labour wasn’t radical enough.”

“We need a completely different kind of democracy, a society where you don’t think purely in terms of representation,” Bregman explained, citing the Brazilian city Porto Alegre’s pioneering experiments in participatory democracy (citizens’ assemblies, for instance, determine public spending priorities). “I call it the anarchist state. The anarchists want to abolish the state; what I want to do is to make the state think like an anarchist.”

Rutger Bregman has a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature: “People are pretty nice” (his next book will challenge “the long intellectual history in the West that says, deep down, we’re all animals, we’re all beasts”).

He dismissed those who cite the 20th century – the age of Stalinism and fascism – as proof of the ruinous consequences of utopian thought. “People are always yearning for a bigger story to be part of, it’s not enough to live our own private lives. If you don’t give them [people] hope, they’ll go for something else.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist