September 5, 2014KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsReadingWriting

Political Poetry


Should poets speak truth to power? Is it their role to court censorship, to call out social injustices, to commentate, to dare reveal political iniquity for what it is and damn the consequences? NPR critic Juan Vidal thinks so and says so, at length.—A short list of problems with this outlook:

1.)                 American political poetry usually (always?) is a mouthpiece of the political left. Imagine a Sociopolitically Engaged Poet writing a Poem of Passionate Political Protest against…illegal immigration from Latin America? Gay marriage? A poem in support of American involvement overseas, its military heroes and its mission, would feel jingoistic, would be the stuff of Bad Poetry. Why is that? Conservative political viewpoints ring poetically false–because the majority of poets and poetry-readers lean left. When Americans say “political poetry,” the political ideas in that poetry are a foregone conclusion (see #5 below). The poetry is there to bemoan again in free verse what pundits and commentators are already bemoaning in prose. To quote Vidal quoting a particularly trite bit of Neruda: and the blood of the children ran through the streets…. There ought to be a moratorium on the invocation of children’s blood in political poetry.

2.)              This basic predictability of political poetry has to do with literary conventions—with what the audience of poetry is willing to accept. And the audience for poetry absolutely hates poems that defend Empire and glorify, or even humanize, empire-builders. This is part of the reason for the precipitous decline in the reputations of the first English Nobel literary laureate, Rudyard Kipling, and the poet who was once the most revered poet in the Western world, Virgil. Similarly, there are no poems anymore about the thrill of killing successfully in war—not because no soldier has ever gotten a thrill out of killing, but because the post-WWI conventions of war literature forbid it. This was by no means the case in antiquity, whose audience saw war whole—and whose poetry, accordingly, showed warriors both in the pity-of-war state of mind (Achilles mourning Patroclus) and the thrilled-with-bloodlust state of mind (Achilles most of the rest of the time).

3.)               The claim that poets in the past used to give the finger to the powerful, and that only recent American poets are disengaged, is false. Have we forgotten that much poetry of the past was court poetry? That Spenser’s Faerie Queene, all allegory aside, was Elizabeth I, and that Tennyson took tea with Victoria? Most poets in the past used to flatter whatever king or duke or earl paid their way. Dante, the supposed rebel, railed against Florence because Florence wouldn’t have him; he flattered Can Grande della Scala, and wrote an Epistle explaining much of the Commedia to him, even though Can Grande did his share of power-hungry town-sacking.

4.)            Incidentally, Vidal’s assertion that poets aren’t politically engaged isn’t even true about modern-day American page poets. There is plenty of politically engaged poetry being written out there, some of it collected in massive online anthologies. The claim that rap is somehow a more effective or more consistently political artform is untrue as well; the most popular rappers of our day aren’t rapping about Iraq or Syria or Ukraine; they aren’t even rapping all that much about racism, as a glance at this week’s most popular rap songs on Billboard will show you. Vidal’s most egregiously wrong implication is that poetry’s small readership has to do with its apolitical content. Poetry’s small readership has to do with many different factors, but waving the bloody shirts isn’t going to change reading patterns throughout the English-speaking world.

5.)               In practice, political poetry doesn’t complicate our sense of the political situation. Quite the opposite. Even Dante’s rants against the White, no, the Black Guelphs (or do I mean the Piebald Ghibellines?) are just that: Rants. Admit it, your eyes glaze over a little when he rambles on about the city of Florence. It’s almost as boring as the theological disquisitions. Get on with it, Dante: We want to see the hairy Beast stuck in the frozen lake. At least on a political talk show, you get the benefit of more than one point of view. Gather a bunch of political poets, and every last one of them will be “against” the war, no matter what war it is, or what the reasons are for or against fighting it. A prose article laying out the pros and cons, or a journalistic account of the situation on the ground, is simply more interesting.

6.)             Vidal asks us rhetorically, “When was the last time a poet made enough noise to be threatened with censorship?” The U.S. government has no reason to censor anyone for expressing widely accepted ideas in a marginalized art form. Our government censors, or puts on a watchlist, only those who express support for a contrary worldview. This was once the case for Communism, back when Communism was felt to be a threatening worldview; today it is the case for jihadi Islam, because that is felt to be a threatening worldview. Basically no poet or writer in our society has a problem with democracy, or women’s rights, or freedom of speech, or freedom of religion; writers do not have to be censored because they aren’t really dissenting. They are simply pushing for better/fairer/kinder versions of capitalism and democracy: More rights, fewer bombs. Our political system is well-equipped to absorb this kind of agitation; any Daring Poetic Utterance is likely to have been more directly and angrily expressed already, on a blog or in a newspaper editorial. Today’s truly daring political poet would write against the prevailing notions of the day regarding equality and peace. That’s the kind of poem that would court media blowback—not some well-meaning, right-thinking free verse screed about police brutality or racial inequality.

7.)              Vidal also admires the fact that Howl had its own obscenity trial. Was the trial for its political content? Let us remember that it was easier to cause public offense in Ginsburg’s day; all you had to do was be vulgar.

8.)             And yet there have been eras in which powerful political art has been made. The nostalgia, in America, is for the generation that created poems and songs in response to Vietnam. There is one root cause for the failure of early 21st century wars to call forth a thriving, early 21st century protest art in music and literature. Why did the 60’s and 70’s create so much powerful art in response to their nasty overseas war, while we remain relatively uncreative in response to ours? The answer, yet again, has to do with the audience, the society. The government got rid of the draft. Today’s military is all-volunteer, and many of its tasks are outsourced to contractors anyway. This time around, when America went to war, middle-class college kids didn’t have to worry about their numbers coming up. There were campus marches, of course—but no one had any draft cards to burn. There was indignation and outrage enough, but there was no anguish; and that absence of anguish in the audience accounts for the muted political response of its artists.