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How Does Activist Poetry Cope With Ambiguity?

This poem is more than likely unambiguous in its message but is made up of many linguistic ambiguities and probably quite a few ambiguities of meaning:

The Bulldozer Poem

Bulldozers rend flesh. Bulldozers make devils
of good people. Bulldozers are compelled to do
as they are told. Bulldozers grimace when they

tear the earth’s skin—from earth they came.
Bulldozers are made by people who also want new
mobile phones to play games on, and to feed families.

Bulldozers are observers of phenomena—decisions
are taken out of their hands. They are full of perceptions.
They will hear our pleas and struggle against their masters.

Bulldozers slice and dice, bulldozers tenderize, bulldozers
reshape the sandpit, make grrrriiing noises, kids’ motor skills.
Bulldozers slice the snake in half so it chases its own tail,

writing in front of its face. Bulldozers are vigorous
percussionists, sounding the snap and boom of hollows
caving in, feathers of the cockatoos a whisper in the roar.

Bulldozers deny the existence of Aether, though they know
deep down in their pistons, deep in their levers, that all
is spheres and heavens and voices of ancestors worry

at their peace. Bulldozers recognize final causes, and embrace
outcomes that put them out of work. There’s always more
scrub to delete, surely . . . surely? O continuous tracked tractor,

O S and U blades, each to his orders, his skill set. Communal
as D9 Dozers (whose buckets uplift to asteroids waiting
to be quarried). O bulldozer! your history! O those Holt tractors

working the paddocks, O the first slow tanks crushing
the battlefield. The interconnectedness of Being. Philosopher!
O your Makers—Cummings and Caterpillar—O great Cat

we grew up in their thrall whether we knew it or not—playing
sports where the woodlands grew, where you rode in after
the great trees had been removed. You innovate and flatten.

We must know your worldliness—working with companies
to make a world of endless horizons. It’s a team effort, excoriating
an ecosystem. Not even you can tackle an old-growth tall tree alone.

But we know your power, your pedigree, your sheer bloody
mindedness. Sorry, forgive us, we should keep this civil, O dozer!
In you is a cosmology—we have yelled the names of bandicoots

and possums, of kangaroos and echidnas, of honeyeaters
and the day-sleeping tawny frogmouth you kill in its silence.
And now we stand before you, supplicant and yet resistant,

asking you to hear us over your war-cry, over your work
ethic being played for all it’s worth. Hear us, hear me
don’t laugh at our bathos, take us seriously, forgive

our inarticulateness, our scrabbling for words as you crush
us, the world as we know it, the hands that fed you, that made you.
Listen not to those officials who have taken advantage

of their position, who have turned their offices to hate
the world and smile, kissing the tiny hands of babies
that you can barely hear as your engines roar with power.

But you don’t see the exquisite color of the world, bulldozer—
green is your irritant. We understand, bulldozer, we do—
it is fear that compels you, rippling through eternity,
embracing the inorganics of modernity.

Ambiguity in a poem can be the generator of a desire to reconsider, to alter, to question. Activist poetry—specifically poetry that seeks to halt environmental damage—is about clearly delineated outcomes, and yet if the poem doesn’t enrich the reader in intellectual, spiritual, artistic, and/or emotional ways, its impact is necessarily diluted or lost. It’s not that the activist poem needs to be “more than statement,” but rather that in being poetry, it will necessarily be many things at once—many versions of itself, at least some of which will be beyond the poet’s understanding.

Language itself generates meanings, and its meanings change over time. Sound, visual references, shape and words themselves will bring different meanings to different people at different times in different places. And this is good and necessary, and in recognizing this, activist poets are acknowledging the intimacy with which they are connected to what it is they are trying to protect, to save. Even if we feel that “nature” should exist outside the human, we still need to understand how we do or don’t connect with this.

Ambiguity in a poem generates ways of considering this without setting rules. Can a figurative poem be directly activist? Or does a poem need to be more rather than less polemical to show its integrity regarding change? Can we create an activist poem that has characteristics of metaphor and polemic and fuse them into something dynamic, ambiguous, indirect, yet still intense and capable of encouraging people to reconsider a situation? Not to tell people what to do, but to encourage them to investigate an issue in diverse ways, to find that language compels us toward liberation and a just position regarding the natural world and our relationship to it? The self as a mirror to the biosphere.

Maybe we can write a rhetorical lyric, we can say—we can rant—but let the poem open those proverbial “doors of perception” of which we are not even aware when we write. The awareness often comes later. Interestingly, the poet Louis MacNeice (whose politics and ethics were very different from my own, which is fine!), wrote in his “Note” to Autumn Journal (London: Faber and Faber, 1939): “If I had been writing a didactic poem proper, it would have been my job to qualify or eliminate these overstatements and inconsistencies.”[1] First, the idea of writing a purely “didactic” poem seems odd to me personally, though I can be didactic. But a poem through the act of being a poem undermines its own certainties, and the constraint that form (open or closed) imposes on a reading necessarily bends as much as directs what is being said. It’s just not that conclusive, surely?

My purpose is not to define versions of ambiguity (Empson’s “Seven Types” or, for example, to cite The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics[2]: “Beardsley, Kooij, and Rimmon make a case for restricting the term ‘ambiguity’ to utterances whose multiple interpretations are mutually exclusive and thus lead to indecisiveness of meaning” (41). Rather I wish to acknowledge ambiguity’s essential nature in the poem. In writing an activist poem, we need knowledge of polysemy and of ambiguity—this being, to quote Empson, “any verbal nuance, however slight, which gives room for alternative reactions to the same piece of language” (Princeton, 40). It is essential to know that whatever we declare as a wrong or a right is actually open to reinterpretation and to misinterpretation. We need to move beyond rhetoric, beyond linguistics and critical discourse, and go to the essence of crisis and work with language under that pressure. The misreading of a text should be the guide, the generator, rather than the specifics of what we want to convey.

A poem is ineffective as an activist moment if we have not understood that meaning is never stable. However, this is not a model, and there is no such thing as an activist poem per se—a poem responding to, for example, an ecological crisis can never be generic as though each crisis is part of a greater ecological crisis; its co-ordinates and variables are specific, if interlinked. So we are creating sequences of interconnected poems that are nonetheless “case”-specific, or maybe undoing cases.

But are we really talking about variations of “didactic poetry”? Are we creating an opposition, or maybe a compatible contrary to “ambiguous poetry”? Of course not. Didactic poetry, like all poetry, can be ambiguous. When I talk of an “activist poem,” I am talking about something that will inevitably be ambiguous in varying degrees but to a lesser or great degree didactic. Yet even with “didactic” poetry—a poetry of “teaching and learning”—what constitutes such qualities is elusive. Back to the Princeton: “Aware of such proliferating contexts, we try to focus here chiefly (but not exclusively) on poetry which clearly intends “useful teaching,” embodying Horace’s “instruction and delight” in the genre of “didactic poems” (292). Well, if I am being didactic in my activist poems, I am doing so to inform as extension of witness, and I do hope to bring positive change, but I am certainly not interested in “delight,” unless it be “delight” in the agency and intactness of the “natural world.”

Late in the Princeton entry, we read: “In sum, modern didacticism assumed protean forms that could no longer be forced into the genre classifications of the Augustans” (294). And this would accord with the contemporary possibilities for activist poems that are necessarily ambiguous. The condition of our presence on the earth is no more ambiguous than that of any other life-form, but our relationship with the earth has become increasingly ambiguous. The very act of typing this, of speaking this in a modern performance space, is creating a relationship with the life of the planet itself, a relationship that is at best ambiguous, and at worst, hypocritical. Poems of activism have to be informed by this knowledge—and if not in the writing (as we’d hope), certainly in the experiencing. Activist poems augment and maybe extend direct action, but they rarely operate alone—they perform best in atmospheres of protest, of refusal to comply with the damage being done.

My opinions, attitudes, ethics, and politics are not remotely ambiguous. I am a vegan anarchist pacifist and believe in a nonviolent and gradual evolution of the state into smaller communal fragments of consensus and dialogue. I call this “international regionalism.” It is not isolationist, but it is respectful of difference, geography, culturality, and a mutuality of autonomy. On the other hand, though my poems can often be very direct accusations and certainly witnessings, with direct opinion coming through loud and clear, overall I’d say I write an ambiguous poetry.

The act of poetry itself doesn’t necessarily have to introduce ambiguity, as much traditional ritualistic song seems to show, but wherever there is figurative language, there is slippage, and even the fixed points of a song alter over time in the ongoing process of reinterpretation. It is too easy to become anthropological in reading poems as ritual, especially within traditional contexts, which is to colonize symbol and metaphor, to reinvent similes. Poetry, by and large, contains at least aspects of ambiguity because it is repeated—whether through mnemonics and memory, or the passing down of written/inscribed texts. Ambiguity increases as time passes and the originating moment of the poem-song-text is “lost.”

Ambiguity is more “threatening” to state-corporate-military control than even didacticism. If the power structures can’t comprehend something, they either ignore it or destroy it. A lot of poetry of protest survives because it simply isn’t “got” (understood). Which doesn’t mean it is ineffective—often, it means it is highly effective. Meaning is fluid if the form of the poem is relatively stable. And form suggests a kind of conservatism, an inherited recognizable model that operates as an acceptable template. Even the word “poem” is a kind of state permission to perform a literary act—we all know that “poetry” is at the core of not only many religious texts but also official expressions of state. Here I mean those poems written for coronations, inaugurations, military victories, celebration of a new building.

On the other hand, poems are also written to express antiwar, republican, anti-state, and other oppositions to the status quo. The poem can contain the radical and the conservative and it’s this ambiguity in form, in genre, in process and identification, that makes poetry such a valuable mode of radical expression.

In 2015 the state government of New South Wales in Australia published a booklet for schools on how to identify and suppress radicalism in students. Supposedly a “response” to the radicalization of Australian youth by operatives of the Islamic State and other violent fundamentalist Islamic groups, the government used the crisis of violence to seek to control other forms of oppositional behavior by defining them as violent threats to the ordinary Australian citizen.

One case study used in this booklet for schools involved a hypothetical student who became a forest camp antilogging protester. We follow the narrative of her “radicalization” through assault charges in resisting police and loggers, through to her “seeing the light” and joining a moderate “official” ecological group. This narrative is more than an appalling propaganda exercise: it is an overt usage of the state-run education system to control an individual’s relationship to the state.

Ecological protests are very rarely cases of “attack” but almost always cases of “defense.” Loggers and the police most often attack the protesters trying to save ancient woodland from being destroyed by the state and its capitalist overlords. An act of sabotage against logging machinery is very different from police charging down protesters with horses and batons. I know, because I have seen these things at firsthand. To align acts of public terror with acts of ecological protection is not only to confuse the issues but to exploit violent acts of terrorism in order to control other aspects of social and political freedom.

To my mind, poetry must wrest control of language back from these oppressors and propagandists and undo the state and business control of learning. Poetry is a means of teaching freedom of thought and expression, as well as a vehicle for free expression. Ambiguity allows us to write in invisible ink on one hand, beyond detection, yet also to speak loudly and boldly at once. This is not a paradox—it is the very nature of poetry itself, and always has been.

So who is speaking, who is the state to blame for the voice of the poem, for what it does and doesn’t say, for what it enacts or “incites”? What of the ambiguity of the self, ambiguity of the unified self, ambiguity of (personal) pronouns, ambiguity of responsibility, ambiguity of audience, ambiguity of identity and identification? In writing activist poems, in trying to prevent the destruction of habitat, there is a need to be very conscious of the poem’s voice—how much of our “selves” is in there.

Why does this matter? Well, primarily it’s a question of integrity and a willingness to be held accountable for what you are “saying.” But it’s also a question of authenticity and reliability—is the poem’s voice to be trusted? Can a poem that talks of the destruction of forest be effective if it is full of wrong data?—if the details don’t match the situation? Isn’t this ambiguity? Isn’t this figurative? Can we, for example, say in a poem something about a type of bird or animal that isn’t actually present in the forest that we are trying to protect? Is the “talismanic,” protective nature of the poem impaired by what seems “misinformation”? An experienced teacher of poetry might reply, Well, it’s a poem, not a scientific report, what does it matter? What is at stake in the poem are a mood, a suggestion, a conceit, and a deeper point of affect.

That’s all true, and I think data isn’t vital to making a poem create a mood—after all, we can read a Shelley poem at an Australian forest protest and it can have a powerful effect on an audience, can inspire them to further action through a correlative of affect and mood, but it won’t have the same effect as a poem written by, say, an Aboriginal Australian poet who has a profound knowledge of the environment about which he or she is writing. Why is this? Because inherent and specific knowledges of a place extend that place into the audience’s psyches. A sharing of presence takes place.

I always try to include correct and informed data in my activist poems, though that data often creates images and impressions that move far away from the “science” of locale or situation. There are many levels of awareness occurring in any poem, and I like my poems to allow these breadths of expression.

Poems are complex sites, especially when they seem to be at their most obvious. And this complexity allows us to perform many roles of self and nonself in the space of a poem. The activist poem is always going to be about the place, the subject one is trying to protect or advocate for, but sometimes “I” is too potent a force to exhibit in the poem, and a move away from the lyrical “I” is far more effective. How close or how distant the self is in a poem can change the poem’s reception and potency in all sorts of ways.

In writing poems of protection and protest in recent environmental actions, I have made use of the “ambiguous” and evasive figure of Sweeney:

Sweeney the Barn Owl Opens His Eyes Wide in Broad Daylight

Sweeney looks down at the people coming out of the hospital—
they have seen him, he knows it in his bones. Yes, now their eyes
search his eyes and the shock of light reaches as far inside

as the flames that drove him out of the tall tree on the hillside.
Where can I rest? he asks them. The Main Roads are cutting down
all the old-growth wandoos and salmon gums and York gums,

slicing through their anniversaries with a righteousness
that will truck no argument. These living heritage buildings
we conduct our lives in and around, our places of eating and worship.

Sweeney shuts his eyes on them, high up in the gum that clings
to the edge of the car-park. Tonight he will fly southeast, aiming
to reach the great trees still remaining on the York-Quairading

Road before they are brought down, before red-tailed phascogale
and Carnaby’s black cockatoo and rainbow bee-eater are forced
to find somewhere else to feed and nest and hide from owl, or vanish

and in the matutinal revelation that abbreviates his waking hours,
upside down in a tree-killer’s world, Sweeney will hoot at their stupidity,
a klaxon-call just before the crash that will wipe us all out.

On the other hand, where something has directly affected the well-being of my own son—also protesting—I am personal and direct: a parent speaking to parents, to children, as we all are:

Accounts—to the Premier of Western Australia

I hold you accountable for the trauma our thirteen-year-old
is going through as habitat for the birds he loves is destroyed.

I hold you accountable for the emphysema of the biosphere,
that gasp you add to our last gasps, deoxygenated, stranded by the road.

I hold you accountable for the zoo of death, for the ark scuttled
and going down with all hands on board, for survivors shot on the surface.

I hold you accountable for helping boil the planet in its own oil,
for encasing it in bitumen dredged from the pits of hell.

I hold you accountable for making science a convenience store
in which well-fed bullies stuff their baskets without paying.

I hold you accountable for cruelty and torture, for casualties
you don’t acknowledge, for ignoring alternatives to feed your vanity.

I hold you accountable for treating life as a game in which winner
takes all, a psychology of childhood instilled by abusive adults.

And, extending responses to an imposing and malign State, I take a late-nineteenth-century poem by the “Goldfields poet,” “Willy Willy: The Boulder Bard,” which ironizes both the ode’s form and a place very far away from the ode’s origins and conventions and reconfigures the ode as a critique of the State in its impact on the local and as a broader generic entity of oppression, control, and absurdity. So, starting with the late-nineteenth-century piece of ironic versifying that is a declaration of both extremity and difference, but also of a weird camaraderie of connection in this “isolation” (of course, there is irony in its being an expression of alienation on stolen indigenous land that for the local people had been anything but a “hell”):

“Ode to Westralia”

Land of Forests, fleas and flies,
Blighted hopes and blighted eyes,
Art thou hell in earth’s disguise,

Art thou some volcanic blast
By volcanoes spurned, outcast?
Art unfinished—made the last

Wert thou once the chosen land
Where Adam broke God’s one command?
That He in wrath changed thee to sand,

Land of politicians silly,
Home of wind and willy-willy,
Land of blanket, tent and billy,

Home of brokers, bummers, clerks,
Nest of sharpers, mining sharks,
Dried up lakes and desert parks,

Land of humpies, brothels, inns,
Old bag huts and empty tins,
Land of blackest, grievous sins

My response comes in the context of oppression, dispossession, environmental destruction, and some people’s desire to deny the truths of these issues. The question to ask, maybe, is whether or not it’s more or less ambiguous than the “original” (in itself a somewhat faint and distant simulacrum and parody of the Pindarian Ode)? The politics and ethics at work are obviously different, but it’s worth wondering where ambiguity and didacticism fade in and out of perspective. Does humor in the first enhance or intensify ambiguity; do my version’s brutal confrontations with what I consider a sad reality manifest ambiguities in its exponential metatexts (the form of the ode itself, the “Ode to Westralia,” Plato, the trajectories of rhetoric and Latin poetry, “popular culture” references, environmentalism, Victoriana, contemporary political discourse, etc)? Both are metatextual poems, of course, but the first is speaking with those in the know, those in the goldfields who share the experience of the “outback.” Mine is a direct confrontation with authority. But both are anti-authoritarian. Here’s mine:

A New Ode to Westralia: Anthem for All Future Sporting Events

The state is killing our souls
The state has murdered the people—some they murder over and over
The state has deployed vicious antibodies to kill the good cells
        and let the infection thrive
The state has equated work with destruction and manipulated the outcome—
        remember, the state has no love for unions.
The state deployed its shock troops who watched on as poems were yelled
        at them, their commander marshaling attitude, saying: how can we
        shut this one up? Poets of the world, take notice. They will close
        you down the moment you break free of your anthologies,
        your safety in pages of literary journals, the comforts
        of award nights.
The state shapes itself out of the dust rising from underforest
        which is its soul exposed to a caustic, toxic atmosphere
        made by so many other such actions of malice—the shape
        is cartoonish to start with, then like a Hollywood effect
        then just terrifying ectoplasm feeding on sap and blood and grit.
The state chips and mulches because it has heard rumors of Plato’s
        theory of forms and thinks it needs a new translation full of local
        business inflection, full of their own brand of ‘civilization.’
The state has no intention of letting traditional owners maintain traditional
        places of worship of culture of belonging—it’s always been about
        the twin poles of denial and deletion.
The state has reservoirs of species names and the odd pressed sample
        of a flower they wish only to remain as a Latin name and a collectible,
        gathering in worth, which is the essence of market economics,
        rolling on through the bushland with gung-ho in-your-face finality.
The state wants you to gasp as the tall tree cracks and is brought down fast,
        the pair of tawny frogmouths lifting to nowhere, dazzled by daylight.

And finally, the seemingly unambiguous address to a chainsaw—extension of the State. It takes us back to the bulldozer poem with which I began, in which “modernity’s” complex and shifting array of ambiguities is operating at full tilt to create a desire for liberation, for the natural over the machine choice. In the bulldozer poem, modernity is associated with inorganics and destruction—the bulldozer will become redundant if the destruction is halted:

it is fear that compels you, rippling through eternity,
        embracing the inorganics of modernity.

And in the same way, the chainsaw poem does the same, but differently—modernity represented as loss, not gain for the planet and, ultimately, for humanity. The chainsaw poem was written back in the early 2000s, so the bulldozer poem echoes that poem, the personified object ironizing the human failure to empathize with other living things. In “Chainsaw,” the machine becomes an extension of the human, almost organic—this irony is at play in both poems.


The seared flesh of wood, cut
to a polish, deceives: the rip and tear
of the chain, its rapid cycling
a covering up of raw savagery.
It is not just machine. In the blur
of its action, in its guttural roar,
it hides the malice of organics.
Cybernetic, empirical, absolutist.
The separation of Church and State,
conspiracies against the environmental
lobby, enforcement of fear, are at the core
of its modus operandi. The cut of softwood
is deceptive, hardwood dramatic: just
before dark on a chill evening
the sparks rain out-dirty wood,
hollowed by termites, their digested
sand deposits, capillaried highways
imploded: the chainsaw effect.
It is not subtle. It is not ambient.
It is trans nothing. A clogged air filter
has it sucking up more juice-
it gargles, floods, chokes
into silence. Sawdust dresses boots,
jeans, the field. Gradually
the paddock is cleared, the wood
stacked in cords along the lounge-room wall.
A darkness kicks back and the cutout
bar jerks into place, a distant chainsaw
dissipates. Further on, some seconds later,
another does the same. They follow
the onset of darkness, a relay of severing,
a ragged harmonics stretching back
to its beginning-gung-ho,
blazon, overconfident. Hubristic
to the final cut, last drop of fuel.

In the face of global habitat-destruction, it would seem the time for radical solutions to the problem. But radical solutions, and pragmatic outcomes that are non-violent and that damage nothing in their implementation, are difficult to achieve.

The work of a radical feminist such as Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex[4] (Women’s Press, 1979) might identify a problem in the biology of reproduction limiting women’s freedom and ensuring the damaging infrastructure of patriarchy, but her solution of cybernetic laboratory reproduction and gestation is a destructive process in terms of technology’s impact on the planet, aside from being a denial of free will. Firestone says, “The division of labor would be ended by the elimination of labor altogether (through cybernetics). The tyranny of the biological family would be broken.” This may be true, but a tyranny of further environmental exploitation to facilitate such cybernetics, even they could be considered an answer to this inequality and oppression, would be the result. The scale of biological machinery required would come at a cost to the biosphere.

So, solutions to radical problems require radically noninvasive answers. It should be noted that writing out of her time (the late ′60s), a radical correction seemed an answer. Those males giving up ownership of the family (Engels[5]) and sharing the role of child-rearing have at least made a step in the right direction. In this context, let us consider the activist power of Anne Sexton’s poem “Unknown Girl in the Maternity Award” and its lines regarding the responsibility of life itself falling entirely on the young woman who has just given birth in the absence of the baby’s father and the social pressures on that circumstance (first published in From Bedlam and Part Way Back in 1960):

Down the hall the baskets start back. My arms
fit you like a sleeve, they hold
catkins of your willows, the wild bee farms
of your nerves, each muscle and fold
of your first days. Your old man’s face disarms
the nurses. But the doctors return to scold
me. I speak. It is you my silence harms.
I should have known; I should have told
them something to write down. My voice alarms
my throat. “Name of father-none.” I hold
you and name you bastard in my arms.

Now, without change in societal attitudes, and without a shift away from patriarchal oppressions, this poem can’t truly work as an activist tool (whatever the poet’s intentions), but in conjunction with “on-the-ground” activisms, it can. The poem’s ambiguities open pathways to numerous overlapping intercultural and cross-gendering conversations. We can read the poem many ways, and those many ways are an advantage when combined with direct action. Very often, presenting the “condition” of a wrong is adequate to prompt a movement toward change, especially when operating on a collective, communal level.

Radical notions don’t necessarily provide radical solutions to problems. If more damage is done, then that’s no answer. The Marxist who correctly identifies labor as a source of inequality does not solve the problem by technologizing at the cost of the planet, shutting the biosphere down to bring a temporary equality. Equality and fairness come through ecological consciousness and respecting natural environments—we need them, and our integrity absolutely requires such justice. In the activist moment, in the poetry of dialogue with place and environment, we might as poets be part of this, with minimal damage as consequence.


[1] Louis MacNeice, Collected Poems (Winston-Salem: Wake Forest UP, 2013) 791.

[2] The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, eds. Alex Preminger and T.V.F. Brogan (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993).

[3]The Fremantle Press Anthology of Western Australian Poetry, eds. John Kinsella and Tracy Ryan (Fremantle: Freemantle Press, 2017) 107.


[5] As noted by Firestone: “Engels did observe that the original division of labor was between man and woman for the purposes of child-breeding; that within the family the husband was the owner, the wife the means of production, the children the labor; and that reproduction of the human species was an important economic system distinct from the means of production.”

John Kinsella
John Kinsella's recent books of poetry include Firebreaks (WW Norton, 2016), Jam Tree Gully (WW Norton, 2012) which won the Australian Prime Minister's Award for Poetry and the Judith Wright Calanthe Award, and Sack (Picador, UK, 2014). He is an Extraordinary Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge University and Professor of Literature and Environment at Curtin University.