The Problem with Political Poetry

I’ve been thinking about writing a post about political poetry for a while, but I had too many ideas, and I wrote one rambling, didactic piece that sort of lost its bearings. This is one reason for the delay in posting; another is just that I’m terrible at sharing on the Internet.

For example, I’m on Facebook, but I rarely Facebook. I had a conversation with some friends just yesterday about our online personas, and I found myself becoming adamant that I didn’t have one—I didn’t want one—because it all felt so artificial. But I have this blog, right? And my near non-presence on Facebook is, in a way, a kind of persona: Brianna likes things, and occasionally posts gifs of goats with hiccups, or goats that yell like humans, etc. etc. This is pretty true-to-life. I do like things, including animal gifs. I think I just balked at the idea of marketing myself like a commodity. But this is inescapable, I think, in late capitalism. I don’t want to play into the neoliberal side of art—racking up human capital or cultural capital like it were cash in an alternate economy—or the seeming cronyism that is, and perhaps always was, part of the poetry “game.” I told my friends yesterday that I want to hide behind my poems—my poems that avoid post-confessional subjectivity in favor of a shifting and intractable “I.” Basically, I want the work to do the talking and let me recede far into the background. But let’s face it: This isn’t going to get me anywhere. Plus, I’m a scholar as well as a poet, and it’s quite hard to keep my critical ideas to myself. So here I am, rambling about myself when I really want to write about political poetry.

Let’s get to it, shall we?

Political poetry, as I see it, is poetry that addresses political issues, current and historical. Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet is one example. Timothy Donnelly’s The Cloud Corporation is another, very different, example. Poetry could also be political in its form, rather than its subject, as in Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons or Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, which both play with language as a way of approximating the “white ink” of Hélène Cixous’ écriture féminine.

But I’ve noticed that some people who talk about political poetry are talking about something else: not poetry that addresses politics or that uses language experimentally to challenge socio-political dominants, but rather poetry as activism. That is, when the poem somehow manages a kind of human agency to realize political change in the world. I have a problem with this notion of activist poetry in the same way that I have a problem with liking causes on Facebook—it’s a way of appeasing one’s desire to enact political change without really doing the work. I concede that both generating likes on Facebook and writing a political poem can rouse awareness—of course on different levels and to different audiences—but this is a kind of armchair politics, is it not? It’s not worthless, by any means, but it is—dare I say it?— lazy mollifying.

Now, I’m not trying to be all high and mighty here. I do exactly nothing political in my everyday life; I am not a force of change or revolution on any level. I wish this were different, but I’m quiet and timid, and I like to hide behind language. But, I’m also not deluding myself into thinking that I am being politically active when I write a poem that mentions war or poverty or contemporizes the Pinkertons.

Again, let me stress: political poetry is good. Believing a poem has real political agency is not good.

Surely “not good” is a bad way of describing it. Maybe “problematic” is better, though I tend to have my knuckles rapped when I use that word in academic arguments. Let’s go with it anyway.

On the one hand, because poetry is largely a marker of privilege—the poet has the time, the money, the education, the cultural and/or human capital to write poems—the so-called activist poem is problematic in that it emblematizes the poet’s privilege. To look at it another way: If the poet is really devoted to political change, why not use their privilege to better advantage? Their time, money, education, cultural and/or human capital could be used to lobby, or rally, or write their representatives, or form a union, or run for office. (Or write poems and do these real-world things). The political poem is a great endeavor, but in truth, it is little different than a subjective lyric. Both are art. Neither has agency.

But the thing that troubles me most is that the so-called activist poem becomes—whether directly or indirectly—a means of achieving not real political change, but accumulating cultural capital for the poet by writing the “right” kind of poem, the kind of poem that seems to be “missing in the world.” And I use scare quotes here because I’ve seen calls for just this sort of thing, and I find that troubling for the very reason I’ve just noted. It becomes a whole lot of self-promotion in an art economy, and maybe in the real economy, but fails to achieve its purported goal of change on a broader social scale.

In the end, the problem that I’m seeing seems to lie in intent, or in interpretation. The so-called activist poem is a political poem like any other. The issue lies in what you believe that it does.

The political poem can inspire action, or even model what activism might look like. This is what Shelley meant when he called poets the “unacknowledged legislators of the world”: their poems represent the problems society faces and, subsequently, evoke or ignite collective outrage. Shelley is not calling poems agents, but “heralds.” They call for the readership—the audience, the public, the person—to enact change. One must realize that the poem is not enough, is not the last step but the first, if the goal is political in nature. But even then, the poem is not a pure or unadulterated herald; the poet should also recognize the dark, neoliberal underbelly of even this seemingly respectable endeavor.

This has been on my mind lately because I’ve been writing boatloads (well, tugboatloads) of poems for my dissertation, and I’ve found that some of these poems are starting to look like the beginnings of a new manuscript which may be somewhat political in nature. (See “war or poverty or contemporiz[ing] the Pinkertons” above).

Also, I just read some of the winners and runners-up in the recent New York Times Found Poem Student Contest. Because the found texts came from the newspaper, many tended to be political in nature. I loved these three poems in particular. They make me want to design a similar assignment for the next workshop I teach. I will accompany that assignment with a lecture about political poetry. Man, I’m simultaneously excited and bored with myself.

I’m going to end here. I have more thinking to do about these poems I’m writing and what they can and cannot do.

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