April 17, 2007KR BlogWriting

Poetry and Politics

In the course of a reading that she gave at Lewis & Clark College, the poet Judith Barrington expressed chagrin at American intellectuals’ debates about the appropriateness of engaging with politics in poetry. Indeed, there have been more than few who over the past century or so of American intellectual life have asked some version of the question, What has Washington to do with Parnassus? But to find examples of political poetry, we need not look too far, no further certainly than the various European traditions that circulate in American curricula. Consider for example one of the text’s routinely covered in the CORE program at the college where I teach; the text is Vergil’s Aeneid, a poem that sets out to show how the losers of the Trojan War, as recounted in Homer’s Iliad, turn out to be winners after all, winners of such strength as to found a new culture and empire, culminating in Ceasar Augustus, who commisioned the poem for his own political purposes.

But then part of what makes the Aeneid worth reading over and over is that it does much more–and much more very well–than simply underwrite the work of the Roman Empire. As some readers have pointed out, the poem even carries out a critique of certain facets of such empire labor even as it dutifully fulfills the function of state propaganda. At the same time, the poem contemplates the nature and movements of tradition, the conflict between love and duty, proper relations with the gods, the interplay between courage and compassion–all this and more in a language of sufficient strength to outlast the vagaries of translation. These multiple accomplishments account for the greatness of the poem, it seems to me, for I do not believe that there is a single criterion that makes a poem great. Rather, I believe that any literary achievement is relational. In other words, a poem achieves its greatness in relation to multiple values, traditions, protocols, formal characteristics, styles, shifts, variations, modes, sounds, and beliefs. Truly great poetry, that which demands rereading generation after generation, may be that which most successfully carries out its work with regard to and in terms of many such concerns, and in doing so uncannily appeals to future generations’ concerns, needs, beliefs, and desires.

Consider as an example of the relationality of a great poem William Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” in contrast to the more or less commonplace nature poems of the epiphanic good moment that have appeared by the thousands in our literary magazines for the last century or so. These latter may not be too bad on the whole–and in fact I believe many of them to be quite good–but what is it that sets such a poem as “Tintern Abbey” apart even though it certainly includes its own share of good-moment realization in the context of the “sweet inland murmur” of mountain springs? In the course of its natural descriptions, the poem also considers memory, seclusion, the “din / Of town and cities,” “unremembered acts / Of kindness and of love,” the soul, “the life of things,” prospects of future things, “coarser pleasures of boyish days,” the alienation from nature of human consciousness, the motion and spirit “that impels / All thinking things”–the poem contemplates all of this and more in a language of stately iambic pentameter that swerves uncannily toward human speech rather than the expectations of poetic diction (and every generation must swerve away from what has become its immediate precursors’ expectations.)

But what political poetry is and means no doubt shifts from writer to writer, age to age. E. L. Doctorow has noted, “There is a kind of writer appearing with greater and greater frequency among us who witnesses the crimes of his own government against himself and his countrymen.” Doctorow goes on: “His is the universe of the imprisoned, the tortured, the disfigured, and doleful authority for the truth of his work is usually his own body…. So let us propose discussion of the idea that a new art, with its own rules, is being generated in the twentieth century: the Lieder of victims of the state” (quoted in The Writer in Politics, ed. William H. Gass and Lorin Cuoco, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996, 140-41). I have been struck by ways that poetry powerfully combines with other forms of writing. Thus, one can take whatever it is that we might identify as the traditionally poetic–with its expectations of line breaks and densely figurative language–and combine it with a certain kind of political witness to yield the songs of victims to which Doctorow refers. Just as the traditionally poetic can be joined with the genres of the journal, letter, monologue, history (think of Pound’s Cantos), and so on, there is no reason that one cannot combine the traditionally poetic with political outcry, protest, or editorial comment.

I have been writing thus far of poetry as political in a fairly narrow sense, that of explicitly weighing in on issues of policy and power. There are of course many ways in which any number of poems have political dimensions and set up political resonances–perhaps all poems do to some extent. Is it not the case, for example, that a poem that strikes a note of realistic hope in a time of despiar is in some sense political, as are poems that point out the subtle ways that language can coerce without seeming to coerce, as well as poems that strike notes of warning in a time of unfettered optimism. As Carolyn Forche says of “Forced March,” a poem by the Hungarian poet Miklos Radnoti, who was executed during World War II, “The poem becomes an apostrophe to a fellow marcher, and so it is not only a record of experience but an exhortation against despair. It is not a cry for sympathy but a call for strength. The hope that the poem relies on, however, is not ‘political’ as such: it is not a celebration of solidarity in the name of a class or common enemy…. One could argue that it uses the promise of personal happiness against a politically induced misery, but it does so in the name of the poet’s fellows, in the spirit of communality” (in Gass and Cuoco, 141-42). Poetry that concerns itself with despair, strength, and promise, poetry written in a spirit of communality with other human beings or other creatures or the earth, poetry that concerns itself with what it means to be an embodied consciousness in the world, is very likely going to be in some sense political, just as it is likely to be variously epistemological, psychological, theological, hermeneutic, and any number of other things. Poetry is political not because it makes things happen–and probably most poems, as Auden says, make nothing happen, at least nothing overt that can be readily discerned, measured, and written up for the daily papers–poetry is political in large part because it is human language. To say as much is not to reduce poetry or anything else to politics (I doubt that even politics can be accurately reduced simply to politics), but rather to register the extent to which political concerns, like philosophical, psychological, theological, and scientific concerns, are likely to circulate through human language at any moment.

In addressing a gathering of Latin American and North American poets, Thomas Merton pointed out that “the reason for a poem is not discovered until the poem itself exists. The reason for a living act is realized only in the act itself” (Raids on the Unspeakable, 155). If the poem is to be a living act, then it must relate itself to a variety of human concerns, experiences, understandings, and judgments. Among these concerns will likely be such issues as the establishment and control of spheres and conduits of force and influence, the struggle for identity, who gets to speak, and even what is speakable. In addressing these issues, poetry is likely to be implicitly political. There is no reason why it should not at times be political in an overt sense as well.