The Politics of Poetry

The New York Times’s poetry columnist on the intersection between poetry and politics.

David Orr | Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry | HarperCollins | 2011 | 18 minutes (4,527 words)

The essay below is excerpted from David Orr’s 2011 book Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry. Orr writes the On Poetry column for The New York Times, and an earlier version of this essay appeared in Poetry Magazine.

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Shortly before the 2008 Democratic primary in Ohio, Tom Buffenbarger, the head of the machinists’ union and a supporter of Hillary Clinton, took to the stage at a Clinton rally in Youngstown to lay the wood to Barack Obama. “Give me a break,” snarled Buffenbarger, “I’ve got news for all the latte-drinking, Prius-driving, Birkenstock-wearing, trust fund babies crowding in to hear him speak! This guy won’t last a round against the Republican attack machine.” And then the union rep delivered his coup de grace: “He’s a poet, not a fighter!”

Ouch.

Fortunately, this insult to the sacred mysteries of Poesie didn’t go unanswered—within a few days, the poet John Lundberg angrily riposted at the Huffington Post, declaring that he “would be happy to step outside” with Buffenbarger to show him that poets can indeed mix it up. Yet what was most interesting about the Clinton supporter’s remarks wasn’t their inaccuracy or intemperance, but the way in which they nearly summarized two assumptions often made about contemporary American poetry and contemporary American politics. Loosely speaking, these are:

  1. That poetry is passive, swoony, and generally not in the business of “doing things.”

  2. That politics is active, gritty, and comparable to war.

Many objections can be made to these assumptions, but it’s important to note first that poetry and politics are both matters of verbal persuasion—that is, both have strong connections to the old art of rhetoric. Admittedly, poets and politicians are typically trying to persuade us of very different things, yet the two worlds have far more in common with each other than either does with, for instance, the world of Brazilian jujitsu. In light of that, one would think poets might get a little more respect from political speakers, and that political speakers might refrain from comparing their purely verbal existence to the decidedly nonverbal world of physical violence.

But they don’t. Instead, the relationship between American poetry and American politics is confused and confusing, with politicians sometimes describing the highest moments in political life as “poetic” (“I have a dream…”) and other times offering up poetry as a symbol of empty talk. And of course, American poets are even more conflicted. Rare is the poet who doesn’t view himself as deeply invested in political life, and yet the sloppy, compromised, and frequently idiotic business of democracy—which is, for all its flaws, the way most political change occurs in this country—rarely attracts the attention of our best poets. Is this the inevitable order of things? Or are all the talkers simply talking past each other?

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That question is especially important for poets, because they do a lot—a lot a lot a lot—of talking about how poetry fits into the political world. Possibly it isn’t immediately obvious to you that poets and the various choices they make are essential elements in our democracy. Possibly you think that the average voter, upon being told that a group of poets felt strongly about a particular issue, would be less likely to say, “Well, then I am persuaded!” than to say, “We have poets? Do they wear capes?” Possibly you doubt that it really matters, politicswise, whether somebody gets a poem published in a magazine with a circulation in the low hundreds, or writes a long post exposing the evils of the Academy of American Poets on a blog called The Dread Schenectady.

This is why you are not a poet, or at least not a particular kind of poet. For hark at the talk that goes on in Poetryland:

I think that disjunctive and non-sequential writing can change states of consciousness, awakening the reader to reality, and thus the need for political change.

—HANNAH WEINER, POET, IN The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy

Through men like Dana Gioia, John Barr, and Ted Kooser [three poets whom the author associates with the Poetry Foundation], Karl Rove’s battle-tested blend of unapologetic economic elitism and reactionary cultural populism is now being marketed in the far-off reaches of the poetry world.

—STEPHEN EVANS, PROFESSOR AT THE UNIVERSITY OF MAINE

If the Bush people thought canceling the poetry symposium would quell the rising tide of voices joining Poets against the War, they must have been shocked, if not awed, by the response.

—SAM HAMILL, FORMER EDITOR OF COPPER CANYON PRESS

Is it facile to connect the fortunes of American poetry in the largest sense with the partisan nature of the federal government? Maybe, maybe not…

—DAVID LEHMAN, EDITOR OF THE BEST AMERICAN POETRY SERIES

It may seem odd that an art form so determinedly ignored by most Americans spends this much energy talking about its role in the political life of those very same Americans. (Lest it seen that I’m singling out leftist poets in the above quotations, I should add that almost all poets, including myself, lean left. There are maybe five conservative American poets, not one of whom can safely show his face at a writing conference for fear of being angrily doused with herbal tea.). We don’t spend much time wondering what poetry has to do with neuroscience or television writing or college basketball, yet these are important areas of American existence that invoice assertions about truth , form, morality, and the nature of culture—all subjects regularly claimed as poetry’s turf. Yet the connection between poetry and politics interests the poetry world in ways that the arguably more obvious connection between poetry and linguistics does not. Why?

The ideal answer to that question would involve a painstaking analysis of the political inclinations of several hundred years’ worth of English language poets, and it would take a proper scholar at least two books to outline. That answer would also be dull, so let’s instead consider two quotes, one famous, one slightly less so. The first is from Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1821:

The most unfailing herald, companion, and follower of the awakening of a great people to work a beneficial change in opinion or institution, is poetry…[Poets] measure the circumference and sound the depths of human nature with a comprehensive and all penetrating spirit and they are themselves perhaps the most sincerely astonished at its manifestations; for it less their spirit that the spirit of the age. Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehend inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadow’s which futurity casts upon the present’ the words which express what they understand not’ the trumpets which sing to battle and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

And the second quote is from W.H. Auden in 1948:

All poets adore explosions, thunderstorms, tornadoes, conflagrations, ruins, scenes of spectacular carnage. The poetic imagination is not at all a desirable quality in a statesman. In a war or revolution, a poet may do very well as guerrilla fighter or a spy, but it is unlikely that he will make a good regular soldier, or, in peace time, a conscientious member of a parliamentary committee.

Percy Bysshe Shelley. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Percy Bysshe Shelley. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Although Auden is a levelheaded writer who’s usually in the business of undercutting people like Shelley, it’s interesting to notice the ways in which these very different statements are based upon similar assumptions. Poets, Shelley tells us, are “the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present”—in other words, they aren’t just people who think of ways to write new poems, but people who imagine new ways of being and perceiving. It might at first be hard to see how Auden’s wry description of “the poetic imagination” as a jumble of thunderstorms and explosions matches up with this conception. Yet Auden’s gentle mockery begins from the premise that poetic thinking is essentially apocalyptic; that poetry involves a kind of totalizing vision to which everything, even the poet himself, becomes subordinate. Shelley thinks this vision is to be trusted; Auden thinks it should be resisted. But both believe that this is how poetry works.

It’s also how democratic politics is sometimes thought to work, at least when we’re thinking of politics in its more abstract incarnations. Here, for instance, is how Franklin D. Roosevelt viewed the job to which he devoted much of his life:

The Presidency is not merely an administrative office. That’s the least of it. It is more than an engineering job, efficient or inefficient. It is predominantly a place of moral leadership. All or great presidents were leaders of thought at times when certain historic ideas in the life of the nation had to be clarified.

To say that you’re personally necessary in order for “certain historic ideas in the life of nation…to be clarified” is only a few hyperventilating breaths short of calling yourself “a mirror of the gigantic shadow which futurity casts upon the present.” The link again is the concept of totalizing vision. And this concept—dramatic, romantic, wildly generalizing is one that politics and poetry don’t share to the same degree with activities like neuroscience (which tends to emphasize craft). Indeed, the only other areas of American life that have similar inclinations are probably religion and philosophy. Religion is no longer attractive for many poets for reasons that are historical and beyond the scope of this chapter. Philosophizing remains a popular endeavor in the poetry world, but only so long as it’s poetic sort of philosophizing (Nietzsche, Heidegger) and not complicated, logic stuff that involves formulations like xFx—>∃x◊Fx. Since Anglo-American philosophy has been dominated by the latter sort of thinking for decades, it’s no surprise most poets don’t go in for it.

This leaves politics as the most favorable nonartistic arena for a certain type of poetic sensibility. In his essay “Absolute Poetry and Absolute Politics,” the British critic Michael Hamburger argues that this sensibility, which he connects with the Romantic-Symbolist tradition, “presuppose[s] a high degree of isolation or alienation from society.” Hamburger believes that poets who work in this vein have “a private religion, a religio poetae that is incompatible with the public world,” and that such writers consequently are attracted to “absolute political creeds, mistaking their monomania for a dedication akin to [the poets’] own, and seduced by promises of order.” It’s an interesting point, but we can be satisfied with a more modest related argument: any brand of politics—“absolute” or not—has a vision that supports and sustains it, and in which some poets may find reflections of the structure they seek in their writing. Even the responsible American citizen-poet has flicker of the old Romantic-Symbolist fire in his belly, and this may cause him to feel a connection to contemporary politics that is often no less intense than Ezra Pound’s affection for II Duce. When a contemporary poet like Jorie Graham takes on global warming—as she does in her 2008 book, Sea Changethat’s more or less what’s going on.

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That connection is both enhanced and complicated by the persistence of the lyric as contemporary poetry’s dominant mode. The modern lyric may be fractured, tweaked, or warped, but essentially it remains a self-enclosed world created by a singular voice (which isn’t always the same thing as a single subject called “I”). That voice is often speaking to itself in meditative solitude, yet even as the lyric insists on privacy, the act of insisting necessarily implies that there’s someone to be insisted to. This puts the lyric in a potentially awkward position relative to the larger political world, which is generally not paying it much attention. For American poets, the central dilemma of the modern lyric is therefore remarkably similar to the dilemma that’s often described as central to America itself: the question of individualism. As Tocqueville tells us, “Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.” That solitude can be poignant. Consider the beginnings of three recent books, picked more or less at random:

Toward evening, the natural light becomes
Intelligent and answers, without demur:
“Be assured! You are not alone…”
—FROM Descartes’ Loneliness BY ALLEN GROSSMAN

 

Dress of dreams and portents, worn

in memory, despite
the posted warnings
sunk deeply into the damp
sand
all along the shore. (The green

tragedy of the sea
about to happen to me.
—FROM Lilies Without BY LAURA KASISCHKE

 

I don’t know what kind of man I am.

I know it was not hate I felt;
It was not the disgust and the stone in my belly.
—FROM Rift BY FORREST HAMER

Yet just as America has (mostly) avoided the trap Tocqueville feared, American poets find ways to reach outside themselves, however tentatively. Yes, there’s a great deal of loneliness in the quotes above, but there’s beauty too, and much of that beauty stems from ambivalence and ambiguity: an uncertainty about what might be said, who it might be said to, and how it might be taken. And ambivalence isn’t refusal or rejection. If poets are unsure whom to address—and by extension, unsure of their relationship with society—the modern lyric still wants to address someone. As a result, our poets edge toward politics, they edge away from it; but either way, they are conscious of an existence outside themselves. The path to a richer political poetry is still open.

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And that, of course, brings us to Ralph Nader. Or rather, it brings us to the difficult question of the contemporary political poem, one of the most striking recent examples of which was posted by Ralph Nader on his website in late March 2008. Here is “Don’t Listen to Senator Leahy”:

Senator Clinton:
Just read where Senator Patrick
Leahy is calling on you to drop
out of the Presidential race.
Believe me.
I know something about this.
Here’s my advice:
Don’t listen to people when they tell you not to run anymore.
That’s just political bigotry.
Listen to your own inner citizen First Amendment voice.
This is America.
Just like every other citizen, you have a right to run.
Whenever you like.
For as long as you like.
It’s up to you, Hillary.
Just tell them—
It’s democracy.
Get used to it.

Okay, so it’s not a good poem. But Nader’s effort, however clunky, helps to underscore the confusion we feel over “political poetry” in general. Is a political poem simply a poem with “political” word in it, like “Congress” or “Dachau” or “egalitarianism”? Or is it a poem that discusses the way people relate (or might relate) to one another? If that’s the case, are love poems political? What about poems in dialect? Should we draw a firm line, and say that a political poem has to have some actual political effect? Should it attempt to persuade us in the way most normal political speech does?

Nader’s poem is helpful here, because it’s about as decisively political as anyone could ask. It’s concerned with a specific political situation; rooted in an identifiable political philosophy; addressing a particular political actor; written in language that can be understood and appreciated by its intended audience; and finally, offered in a public forum where it can have maximum persuasive effect. More than anything else, though, “Don’t Listen to Senator Leahy” is noteworthy because it’s comfortable with the idea of politics as politics; it doesn’t presume to stand outside the details of political life while offering judgment on that life. If the poem lacks the elegance of Tennyson’s poetic advice to Gladstone on the Franchise Bill (“Steersman, be not precipitate in thine act”), it at least demonstrates a similar spirit of public involvement. There’s no question that Nader knows whom he’s addressing in this poem, or that he feels he has the right to do so in public.

The more typical contemporary American political poem, however, is a bit different. Consider “Bush’s War” by Robert Hass:

I typed the brief phrase, “Bush’s War,”
At the top of a sheet of white paper,
Having some dim intuition of a poem
Made luminous by reason that would,
Though I was not sure of them entirely,
Set the facts out in an orderly way.
Berlin is a northerly city. In May
At the end of the twentieth century
In the leafy precincts of Dahlem-Dorf,
South of the Grunewald, near Krumme Lanke,
The northern spring begins before dawn
In a racket of birdsong…

Hass goes on to discuss the flora and fauna of the German spring, with a particular focus on asparagus, which is “served on heaped white platters / With boiled potatoes and parsley butter, / Or shavings of Parma ham and lemon juice / Or sprigs of sorrel and smoked salmon.” Then he talks about wartime deaths throughout the twentieth century (“Firebombing of Tokyo, a hundred thousand / In a night”). He concludes that the real problem in the world is “a taste for power / That amounts to contempt for the body… It’s hard to say which is worse, the moral / Sloth of it or the intellectual disgrace.”

For whom is this poem intended? What is it hoping to achieve? And how can we get our hands on some of that asparagus? Hass is a greatly gifted writer with a usually reliable sense of tone, yet here, unlike Nader, he seems to be talking mostly to himself. That is, of course, always a difficult wat to start a political conversation—and despite the boldly specific title, “ Bush’s War” turns out to have less to do with the American invasion of Iraq than with a kind of generalized horror at violence. (Otherwise, it’s hard to understand what Tokyo’s doing in there, aside from serving as another crudité on the atrocity platter.) In this sense, “Bush’s War” is representative of a certain sort of American poem that is probably best described as “pseudo-political,” because such poems fail to address their putatively political subjects in ways that recognize the practical reality of politics. They put forward no argument, make no revelatory comparison, confront no new audience, engage no misconception in language likely to be understood by the deceived, and so on and so on. Instead, they enact a version of the contemporary meditative lyric—“here I sit, having some poetic thoughts”—with a few political words taking the place of, for instance, references to waterfalls and foliage. Why do obviously politically engaged writers end up writing poems of this kind? Because it’s extremely difficult for all of us (writers, plumbers, kindergarten teachers) to address people whose lives connect with our own only at obscure tangents. This is why even a poet of Hass’s caliber can find himself reaching for the reassuring dialect of the university lounge, in which phrases like “moral sloth” and “contempt for the body” apply only to people not actually in the room, and in which monologues are perfectly acceptable, because everyone’s already thinking the same thing.

Which, to be fair, they are. Most contemporary American political poems are written for contemporary American poets, which means that political poems generally have more relevance to the politics of the poetry world than to the politics of America. Our avant-gardists have yet to topple capitalism by undermining narrative, but they’ve gotten some coveted jobs and made their way onto syllabi. Pseudo-political poems—and there legions of them —won’t unsettle anyone’s assumptions about the debacle in Iraq, but they stand a good chance of being praised within the poetry community for their good intentions (much as “Bush’s War was congratulated in The Washington Post by Robert Pinsky for “meditate[ing] on the persistent mass violence and self-righteousness of a century”). Of course, the politics of the poetry would have their own value, and there’s nothing wrong with poets behaving accordingly. But it’s worth wondering whether it’s always a good idea to separate political poetry from the demands of rhetoric, or declare that “all poetry is political,” or equate observations about emotional states with political speech. It’s worth wondering because politics is its own world, whose actors often have never heard of Wallace Stevens, much less “The Idea of Order at Key West,” and whose customs must be acknowledged before they can be effectively challenged.

How, then, do you acknowledge those customs and that really? This is a hard question, and one contemporary American poetry on the whole hasn’t answered effectively. The typical response is to position oneself well outside any kind of actual power or responsibility and address the political world as if one were either a wanly sorrowing space alien, like Hass, or a lightning-eyed hermit atop some gusty bluff, like Adrienne Rich. The idea of “bearing witness” gets tossed around a good bit (as of this writing, I get 237,000 Google hits for that phrase plus “poetry”), which indicates how beside the point the notions of persuasion or conversation can seem in these discussions. When you’re busy witnessing, is there really any need to talk?

But if we reach back a little further—to around 1960, say—it’s possible to see how a poet might speak not just about a political subject, but within it. Gwendolyn Brooks’s “The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock” begins by discussing the friendly normalcy of Little Rock, the way its people “sing / Sunday hymns like anything, / Though Sunday pomp and polishing. // And after testament and tunes, / Some soften Sunday afternoons / With lemon tea and Lorna Doones.” Her speaker—a journalist for the nation’s largest African-American newspaper— sees around her not the stereotypes she expected, but the sadder, stranger spectacle of evil among the everyday. The poem concludes:

I scratch my head, massage the hate-I-had.
I blink across my prim and penciled pad.
The saga I was sent for is not down.
Because there is a puzzle in this town.
The biggest News I do not dare
Telegraph to the Editor’s chair:
“They are like people everywhere.”

The angry Editor would reply
In hundred harryings of Why.

And true, they are hurling spittle, rock,
Garbage and fruit in Little Rock.
And I saw coiling storm a-writhe
On bright madonnas. And a scythe
Of men harassing brownish girls.
(The bows and barrettes in the curls
And braids declined away from joy.)

I saw a bleeding brownish boy…

The lariat lynch-wish I deplored.

The loveliest lynchee was our Lord.

What Brooks is doing here is very different from what Hass is doing in “Bush’s War.” Brooks positions her poem directly among the people—some black, but mostly white, I’d guess—whom she hopes to address. Her rhymes are brisk. Her diction is simple and approachable (“Lorna Doones”). She anchors the poem in tetrameter couplets, one of the oldest and most familiar verse forms (Marvell: “Had we but world enough, and time, / This coyness, lady, were no crime”). She stays within her audience’s range of reference. (“Bush’s War,” on the other hand, includes remarks like “Bald nur —Goetheno, / Warte nur, bald ruhest du auch”—which is the conclusion of Goethe’s “Wayfarer’s Night Song II” and has the practical effect of limiting the poem’s audience to comp. lit, students, poetry critics, and people who get a kick out of italics.)

None of this makes Brooks’s poem better than Hass’s, or makes her political message more convincing (indeed, Brooks herself would later become more skeptical of the conciliatory stance adopted here). And of course, one could criticize Brooks’s poem for the many things it doesn’t do, such as engaging in ingenious formal maneuvers of tackling the political philosophy that undergirds the day-to-day reality being addressed. That criticism would be fair and true, and there is a place for it. But what seems plain is that “The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock,” like Nader’s poem and unlike “Bush’s War,” has the potential to function as local, specific political speech. It doesn’t assume its own powerlessness; it approaches the reader as one citizen addressing another. It aims to persuade.

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Sometimes, however, persuasion is a matter of timing. That is, aside from the question of whether a poem is political, there is also the question of when a poem is political. W.H. Auden wrote “September 1, 1939” as a rhetorical (and anti-rhetorical) response to Germany’s invasion of Poland:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-Second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night …

W.H. Auden. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

W.H. Auden. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

After its political moment passed, the poem spent decades as a vague statement about being one of “the Just” who are, alas, so widely misunderstood – and Auden became annoyed enough with its self-congratulatory tone that he left it out of collections. But then, of course, came September 11, 2001, and the poem emerged again as fully political, fully connected to the spirit of a time and place (as Peter Steinfels observed in The New York Times, it was “endlessly quoted and reprinted to express grief over what had happened and foreboding about what was to come”). Indeed, Auden’s poem has few rivals among the poetry associated with September 11. One of them, thought, might be “Home to Roost” by Kay Ryan:

The chickens
are circling and
blotting out the
day. The sun is
bright, but the
chickens are in4
the way. Yes,
the sky is dark
with chickens,
dense with them.
They turn and
Then they turn
again. These
are the chickens
you let loose
one at a time
and small—
various breeds.
Now they have
come home
to roost—all
the same kind
at the same speed.

The only problem, of course, is that like Auden’s poem, “Home to Roost” was written prior to September 11 and has nothing whatsoever to do with the attack, its aftermath, or the notorious invocation of the specific phrase “home to roost” by Jeremiah Wright, President Obama’s former pastor. Ryan enjoys tweaking clichés, but when a particular cliché is thrown into political relief —as often happens—then her poem tends to follow. It’ll be another five years before she can call this one her own again, which probably annoys her endlessly.

One of the problems with political poetry, then, is that like all speech, it exists at the mercy of time, history, and other people. But that doesn’t mean poetry itself is passive. While it’s probably true that most poets are not, as Tom Buffenbarger said, “fighters”— by which he meant “political actors”—it’s also true that poems like “Home to Roost” can be less predictable. They have their own realities, and the worlds they contain cannot be lightly dismissed. And as a maker of poems, a poet is always in battle, though the opponents may be unclear, the stakes unknowable, and the victories and defeats felt away, in different domains, by people other than himself.

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Excerpted from Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry by David Orr, published 2011 by HarperCollins.