Poetry Criticism: Poetry and Politics
On October 26, 2000, the Poetry Society of America hosted the second debate in its continuing Poetry and Criticism series. The panel discussion, which featured Thomas Sayers Ellis, Marilyn Hacker, Erica Hunt and Ron Silliman, focused on the ways in which contemporary poets manifest political and social thought. Poet and critic James Sherry provided opening remarks and presided over the dynamic discussion that followed.
James Sherry and Marilyn Hacker
I’d like to welcome you to the Poetry Society of America panel on Poetry and Politics. Poetry and politics have been bedfellows since before The Iliad catered to the leading class of Greeks by identifying contemporary leaders with the heroes of the Trojan War. To establish a platform for discussionâand inevitably to over-simplify, to establish a heuristic in what has become a huge body of discussion on the subjectâI would argue that contemporary poets espouse three main views of the relationship of politics and poetry. One caveat: Any poem that takes itself seriously as poetry with complex interactions of prosody and lexicon will tend to address all three points of view, but I think the division of approaches is useful.
1. The Content View: One approach represents themes and positions as content in the poem in order to take a relevant political position. The writing process is instrumental to delivering this content or lexical view.
2. The Prosodic View: Another point of view argues that limiting technical mechanisms to representation, to narration and description concedes the most significant political issues of our time. To avoid ceding strategic ground to a political opposition, these poets use a more indirect approach to presenting political ideas by exploring the meaning embedded in prosody. We can call this alternately the rhetorical, non-lexical, or prosodic view.
3. The Non-political View: The third perspective is that poetry need not address quotidian issues of politics. Poetry is really about humanity’s relationship to nature, the universe and the individual’s most deeply felt personal realities that transcend mere politics.
The panel you see before you is constituted to discuss only the first two approaches. The third view, that politics is not essential to poetry, might better be discussed at another time and as another topic, such as the scope of poetry. If we want to talk about politics and poetry, it doesn’t make sense to me to start by denying the relationship.
The Content View is characterized by the use of political themes and positions. Language is usually instrumental to the theme and transparent, a lens focusing the eye of the reader. Sometimes, the character of an individual represents the whole spectrum of effects of a political position; sometimes events are the subject. Prosody is also instrumental to a set of ideas that may be either pre-constituted or developed as part of the process of writing the poem.
A good example of the genre is Thomas Hardy’s “Channel Firing,” which was written about World War One. “All nations striving strong to make/ Red war yet redder. Mad as hatters/ They do no more for Christes sake/ Than you who are helpless in such matters.” More recently politics has been sub-divided by social groups such as gender, national culture, or race, an identity politics. Every population has a set of specific content vocabulary that ties the reader and the poem. Thomas Sayers Ellis describes in his poem “Sticks” his own father’s character and attitudes as a primary instance of the experience of a black man. The figure of his father rises above his station by an immense effort to crystallize Ellis’ ideas in a series of quick, plain narrative gestures that at one level evoke the entire species using the political situation of his racial and gender group. But Ellis does not want to have his father homogenized into a larger social fabric. His father’s character insists on being represented independently, and his son guarantees his suffrage.
In Marilyn Hacker’s “The Boy,” the main character’s identity changes gender, but the story of oppression remains no matter how the pronouns shift to avoid pain. In her poem, “Days of 1994: Alexandrians” an occasional narrative surrounds the deaths of lesbians and gay men. The poem engages politics through the individual life histories as opposed to theories about abstract citizens. Hacker says, “It’s easier to talk about politics/ than to allow the terror that shares/ both of our bedrooms to find words.” Outrage, frustration, you can’t dismiss what this poem is about. The classical form, Alcaics, and alternative (or is it classical) content are both contrasted and resonate with the geography, creating a multi-tiered identity, invoking lost friends.
The second view, the Prosodic (or Rhetorical) View, asserts that traditional and Modernist technical approaches to writing have an inherent and historical bias that can contradict the lexical intent of the poem. The prosody of description and narration, the inherited forms we read in Ellis and Hacker, promote a commodity-oriented politics where the person is packaged as much as the product. Writing is a carrier of content, enabling writing to serve any politics. As a result, in the non-lexical approach, political views are manifested by specific prosodic strategies, shaping writing practice. And in support of this view, writers from MallarmÃ© to Khlebnikov to Zukofsky have proposed countless approaches to the technology of writing.
Ron Silliman proposes a simple and eloquent technique in his poem “Sunset Debris”: 50 pages of questions with no answers. “Are we there yet? Do we need to bring sweaters? Where is the border between blue and green? Has the mail come? Have you come yet? Is it perfect bound? Do you prefer ballpoints? Do you know which insect you most resemble?” The meaning space, the distance, between the questions varies, keeping the reader in a state of flux, pursuing questions, supplying her own answers, investing the technique itself with meaning and engaging the reader. The politics of the lexical material in Silliman is not fundamentally different from Hacker’s or Ellis'; it is organized differently. Subjects appear in a single sentence and are replaced by another subject only to reappear later. The sequence is not a story but an array, a presentation of lexical material. The writing process and the words themselves together create meaning. Of course one might say that this is no more or less than a definition of poetry, but it contrasts with the more instrumental approach of the first view where political content is the leading characteristic of the work.
Erica Hunt, although associated with the second view, has a somewhat more pragmatic view of poetry and politics. Conditions dictate poetical and political attitudes. The following paragraph might be a metaphor for our discussion of the two sides of political poetics: “In both cities, members of shifting teams have unspoken tasks tending the myths around landmarks, starting the fires, burdening the wires for the headlines back home.” If poetry were news, Hunt would be an investigative reporter rather than a partisan, discovering social relations through her compositions.Please remember that there is far more in the poetries and poetics of these writers than the issue-based panel we are holding tonight. The reciprocal status of politics and poetry makes them figures of speech for each other, but I do not want to maintain that the whole of poetry is encapsulated by political activity. Tonight we’re talking about the political component of poetry.
So, what are the areas of agreement between the political strategies of content and prosody? Both approaches have similar political agendas. The rights and responsibilities desired by both groups for people are similar. Both groups accept the Modernist alliance of form and content. And, of course, all poetry uses both content and prosody. But the emphasis is different. They use different techniques and organizational procedures. We have general agreement of politics with differences of policy, of aesthetic turf. In one view poetry is instrumental to ideas; in the other the writing attempts to be non-instrumental, to become the content in order to forefront the materials of its construction.
Poetry inevitably questions reality as it is received from culture, alternative politics. Whether in Villon’s Testaments or Ginsberg’s Howl, poetry contradicts business-as-usual expectations in a way that makes the very act of writing poetry political. The lack of remuneration for poetry writing, with all due thanks to PSA’s generosity and present company excepted, implies that we poets are conscientious objectors to the economic wars. A piece of paper sells for a penny, but when I put a poem on it, I have trouble giving it away. There are many questions and many answers.
How can poetry actually affect politics? Is it purely vanity for poets to continue to think of themselves as Shelley’s “hidden legislators”? Do our thoughts and actions as poets have to be internally consistent? And what is the function of imagination in political poetry? Just how much irony is practical? Just how much do we have to mean our politics without “taking up arms against a sea”?
How does poetry enact politics? American poets today are not in the position of poets in medieval Islam when 100 drummers marched into battle on the right hand of Haroun el Rachid and 100 poets marched to his left. Nor are U.S. poets given diplomatic posts like Latin American writers. Nor do they run for political office like Eastern European writers. They are not even funded like their Canadian counterparts. Finally, how can poetry accept a subjective posture in a world where some are fighting against the cult of the individual, that does not represent us, that serves another, darker purpose, while some are not being asked to join?
The poets assembled here tonight have already read these and other questions and have been asked to address them (or not) as they choose.
I’d like to begin my contribution to the discussion topic by saying that I’ve always and still do find dialogues that seek an understanding of the practice of writing (in relation to anything) by way of dividing poets, poems and aesthetic approaches into schools, publishing trends, perspectives or whatever, very difficult to stomach. And anti-imaginative. Still, I grant them their place, their usefulness and consider them highly successful only when they bring about a greater amount of appreciation, tolerance and sharing between poets and audiences alike.
Some aesthetic, cultural, imaginative and political background. Are they not all one? I was born and raised in Washington, D.C. I was thirty-nine days old when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. We didn’t live very far from the Capitol Building, in a white shadow, so that November our phone went dead. I hid small rocks in my palm, so my cousin wouldn’t be able to go to the next step, and ran into my Grandmother’s houseâthe moment smoke responding to Dr. King’s murder reached Maryland Avenue. My babysitter cried every time somebody got shotâwhite or black. Malcolm Wallace McGovern. Should I put this in a poem? Make them one? I was quiet. Everybody kept saying Motown, Vietnam, Watergate and home-rule. The big pictures in my big bible scared me. All those white people, all those shalt nots. Every red sky meant fire.
The first thing I did was draw; the first thing I wanted to be was presidentâbut what I knew, even without the words, was that I would write poems. As poet, I would speak. First to myself, then to all the people who wanted to speak to me and who spoke like me. Later for that. And to all the people who did not speak to me and did not care whether I spoke or not. As poet, I would vote all the time; not just during election years. As poet I would celebrate and give; not just during holidays. As poet, I would worship and pray; not just in an uncomfortable suit in my great grandmother’s Jesus-filled apartment church. As poet I would add a star to the sky. As poet I would be free, freer than every Ellis before me. I wouldn’t go to jail like my mother’s brothers. Maybe I would even change my name from Clay to Ali. My perspective, my politics. My rope, my trope.
But first there was this business of family. Of America. Of their war, their divorce. I remember it like it was the day Jimmy Carter was inaugurated. It wasâand it was cold. Hear Gil Scott-Heron’s “Your Daddy Loves You” from Winter in America, did he? And this business of choosing: we (my brother and I) had no choice, we belonged to my mother. Lucky us. She had two jobs. One at McDonald’s. Other kids called her McMom.
I’ve been thinking about putting this in a poem. Vote, show of hands, should I? Is poetry choice, is politics? We learned to choose early. Mother busy. I chose my own junior high school, my own high school, school lunch program, financial aid formsâI didn’t sign her name so much as I drew it. Am I her or am I me? Medium. After visiting the Corcoran, I told my typing teacher I didn’t need you because I have Ben Shahnâwhat did I know? More business, more choosing, especially in verse. Dancing too. All over Washington: Democrats and Republicans. They called them parties; why then only two? Which are you? Are there any others? They must be crowded. I’d choose more. No wonder Nixon was always sweating; you’d sweat too if the whole country wanted to take away your favorite tapes.
All content, in varying degrees of course, can be said to be either political or not. I think it best to assume that most poets have something they want to say and that beneath that something that needs to be shared is a whole reservoir of beliefs, arguments and views that have been influenced by cultural and political agenda, by living in the world. We should also assume that this content will and does come in contact with what I would like to here call The One, imagination, and by that I mean the ability to re-make or create for the first time things as other than their reality selves. The amount of transformation a thing undergoes, if any, is based entirely on the poets relationship to his or her imagination and to her or his relationship and response to all the art and non-art (everything) he or she has come in contact with. All the shapes, all the sounds, all the ways of being. In short, the creation of an aesthetic is a direct result of as many known variable as it is unknown ones. All things that influence other things are political things in that they are here and need to be accounted for, dealt with. Each thing changes that which it is next to. Both words and homes know this. The imagination is this, and, in its unseen, imagined form the most powerful of these other reality-forces: the first nation. One. Yes, writing is a carrier of content and content, I would argue, is in all good poetry, a carrier of creativity. Things imagined and written.
Of course, poets being practicing inspired humans are multi-conscious, multi-desirous, multi-lexical and multi-political (the ability to attend eight parties at once) and are citizens of as many nations as their trained selves will allow. Kinship makes it so. Metaphor makes it so. Community makes it so. Ideas. Personas. Prosody. All make it so. Certainly there are no limits regarding this. What content carries is indeed of great importance in my work and approach, but I would be sadly mistaken if I thought that any successful poem I’d written would be stronger were it not first and foremost a poem. And a recipient, so to speak, of the power of the first nation, the imagination. Simply put: I can imagine a world without nations but I cannot imagine any life without imagination.
James Sherry has referred to my approach in an early poem titled “Sticks” as ideas in a “series of quick, plain narrative gestures.” The speaker of that poem was learning to write as a result of learning to drum as a result of witnessing his father beat his mother. The terrible gift of a creative inheritance is what I was trying to get at; I wanted those quatrains to be varied, dangling modifiers, and to sound like a boy learning rudiments. I chose quatrains because they’ve always seemed like training stanzas to me, and perfect for story and also a good container for my then assault on the white table of contents. Then, as a young writer, it seemed important for me to take the things I’d seen and experienced into places and rooms where they were not often permitted. In Boston, then it seemed to me that all table of contents were exclusive clubs, boardrooms, falsehoods, restricted. In “Sticks” my father, uncompromised, would sit thereâand speak and beat. An activism and a meter had chosen me, very percussive; on and off beat. Both father and son, finally, in our very same and different ways, raising hell.
Is this political, and who can read my politics from this? So, you ask what are the areas of agreement between the political strategies of content and prosody. I understand the asking but not the answering. After all, who ever fits forever in any one category. Poems, regardless of their finished presentations, are always, to me, mongrel things. Hairs, constant motion, textual sharks. Don’t drafts echo and echo this. Don’t they do. I have never thought, while writing, of an agendaâmaybe of a responsibility to passion: to simply make it feel right, look right and sound right. I have never seen non-instrumental writing in a good poem. It all seems instrumental to meâeven in poems that lack so-called poetic diction.
Ron Silliman, James Sherry, Marilyn Hacker, Thomas Sayers Ellis
The political choices within a poem are very different than the politics we hope poetry will affect. Or are they smaller elements in a larger equation? Poetry affects politics by affecting people; by affecting the way they see the world, the way they live and their tolerance for the different types of lifestyles and ways of being in the world. This is, for me, the truest social function of form. To make its new, odd self commonplace. To stretch a tiny bit more, the idea of itself in relation to what existed before it and to extend the possibilities of what will be able to follow it. Nothing, regardless of what we write or write about it, is fixed or finished. Not even laws. Their shape and form and function; their very designâeven as languageâshould change according to the needs and ideas of the people; these people who need poetry and would not be here without imagination. This is how I sometimes think of readers, as votersâsometimes.
As you can see I’ve resisted the easy categories of political and non-political poetry. It is my understanding that all poetry is politicalâas are most good poems, all for different reasons. Poetry enacts politics by challenging reality and by providing a written engine for the imagination. It doesn’t matter what a poem is about for it to do this. It will find its audienceâall agendas do, some poemsâfixed as they seemâcan actually adopt other containers. Sometimes I assign my students the task of rewriting poems like Bishop’s villanelle “One Art” as a double Italian Sonnet or Hayden’s “Diver” as a sestina. The fun and frustration there forces them to view the smallest choices with a new seriousness they’d never give their own poems. The importance of decision-making and what informs technical and aesthetic choice in poems in what I’m after there. How every fixed poem removes their decision to choose. That’s power, that’s creative, that’s political. I tell them: So what it’s published. Take choice back!
In the November-December 2000 issue of Poets and Writers, Yusef Komunyakaa says:
“Horrors are named through imagery. Aesthetics keep us from forgetting.
But I don’t think the writer can have the politics of the piece on the surface.
Otherwise it becomes didactic, polemicalâproblematic as art.”
The surface Komuyakaa refers to is perhaps where all approaches, not just the two named by this panel, disagree. Certainly all poems have a surface, but poetry doesn’t. Don’t believe me, then try and define it. That’s political. What I like about being chosen by poetry is that; it is not prejudiceâthat it does not play the container, race-gender game. It is not even owned by poems. How many times have we read a poem that contained absolutely no poetry. How do we know, really we don’t, but we know, both. The function of the imagination in political poetry, I would add, would be to give the reader a sense of the necessity for change. And perhaps make the reader feel a part of the steps toward such change. The page, for me, has always been democratic spaceâall things created equal. a playground for sameness and difference. I have never felt like an other in any of my poems. I view publishing, since most Table of Contents (which the exception of a few) are white, as political. I pick and choose where my poems are sent carefully; some poems are practice; some are public and some are just for me. To me I am beginning to do new things in my work, simpler, riskier things. I have no desire to be elitist.
“The impulse to enter, with other humans, through language, into the order and disorder of the world, is poetic at its root as surely as it is political at its root. ”
— Adrienne Rich in What Is Found There
“American poetry has been part of a culture in conflict. . ..We are a people tending toward democracy at the level of hope; at another level, the economy of the nation, the empire of business within the republic, both include in their basic premise the idea of perpetual warfare. ”
— Muriel Rukeyser, in The Life of Poetry
Erica Hunt, James Sherry, Marilyn Hacker, Thomas Sayers Ellis
All poetry is political / poetry is quintessentially apolitical. In some sense both of these statements are, and must be, coexistent and true. Poems are political as in “of the polis”â of the human city, of a time and place defined by human interactions and constructions; apolitical in that they are created in the most necessarily irresponsible isolation, in which the poet, even when committed to an idea or to the rectification of an injustice, is free to at least consider putting down any combination of words whatsoever, to see what they sound like, what they say, where they lead.
The poet is at once essentially of his/her time, place, culture, language, and yet enough apart from it to make it comprehensible to someone whose placement is entirely different. In a recent, on-going essay, the South African poet and novelist Breyten Breytenbach writes about the inhabitants of a “middle world” which he calls “Mor”âhalf from “Amour” & half from “Mort”âlove and death. These people are neither displaced person nor exiles. Aware both of the place from which they come, and the place that they currently inhabit, they show, they feel, neither nostalgia for the former nor complete integration into the latter: they are of both, of neither, of some other place, some republic of the mind. This by no means implies that only “intellectuals” fit into this category: the Eastern European Jewish small tradesmen and women whom Joseph Roth describes carrying the disappeared shtetl to Berlin, Paris, New York in the 1920s and 30s; the street-sweepers and nurse’s aides from Mali living in Paris and financing their parents’ old age and their children’s education in Africa, or the Sikh taxi driver who picks you up at JFK, are as much of that category as was Joseph Roth himself, and such writers as Vladimir Nabokov, Djuna Barnes, James Baldwin, Adam Zagajewski, Olga Broumas, HD, Gertrude Stein, Mavis Gallant, Agha Shahid Ali or Thom Gunn. Some of these “middle world” writers look back on the places from which they came; some cast a fresh, if not cold eye, on their adopted cityscapes, some create a verbal matrix that re-births some amalgam of both. Is it one of the poet’s particular tasks to be both of and not of the place central to her constructions, to his meditations? Eavan Boland, the Irish poet who has positioned herself both physically and critically in the United States to better examine both her own origins and the poet’s changing role in Ireland, is surely of that number. Perhaps many Americans who never lived beyond these borders, but changed landscape, diction, dinner hour and breakfast beverage along with educational and professional shifts are in the same category.
I do not think a clear distinction can be made between so-called subject oriented poetry in which “the writing process is instrumental to delivering [this] content or lexical view” and poetry which examines “the meaning embedded in prosody.” At least, I have never begun a poem with the intention of “delivering content, ” or of “making language instrumental” to a theme. That definition would be an appropriate one for propaganda or polemic: not for a poem. In fact, one poem to which James Sherry referred, “Days of 1994: Alexandrians”âwith its Cavafian title, had its origin in an ornamental Alcaic line borrowed from a translation from the French I had myself madeâ”long arabesques of silver-tipped sentences”âwhich led back to the thought of carrying on conversations in two languages on similar subjects with different people in the course of the same week. âand at the same time to the Alcaic stanza form. And the other poem “The Boy” began as a mental conversation with a poet-critic friend, who, in an essay, posited the stance of the young woman poet as “examining the room she’s sitting in’ where the young male poet is looking out the window. . . The “boy in me” who was indeed looking out the window as he /I wrote, responded to her essay. But, although the questions of Jewish identity as inflecting masculinity become central to the poem, as the old saw goes, “I didn’t know he was Jewish.”âat least, not until I was well into writing it.
I strongly believe that every successful poem is at once “examining the meaning embedded in prosody,” that is to say, carrying on a dialogue with its own form and structure, as well as discovering (not delivering) its subject as it proceeds. Perhaps one advantage for the poet who feels herself to be at once of and not of the environment in which she is writing is that she is constantly called upon to conduct that examination and to be aware of how much a poem’s subject is, itself, discovery. This can mean a disjuncture with the forms and structures of the poet’s own apprenticeship, accomplished as both a rupture and a sign of the poet’s directionâ as in Rimbaud’s work, or in Adrienne Rich’s; it can also mean re-visioning within and by means of historical forms to indicate that their histories are by no means fixed or finished. (And there are many poets who move between both strategiesâincluding Rich herself and Hayden Carruth.)
Two of the most significant American poets of the previous generation, who each did move between dialogic and disjunctive formal strategies, and whom I would not hesitate to describe as “political”âGwendolyn Brooks and Muriel Rukeyserâchose the sonnet form in the discovery (a world that in itself suggests disclosure) of narrative meditations which brought things into view new to the form and to poetic focus. For Brooks, in “Gay Chaps at the Bar,” it was the situation of African-American soldiers returning to the segregated country for which they had fought in Europe in World War II, for Rukeyser, in “Nine Poems for the Unborn Child,” it was a pregnant, unmarried woman’s decision to bear and raise a child. This prosodic strategy, for me, serves several purposes. It inscribes the subject of narrative in the history of the form itself, that is to say, it declares clearly that it exists, both in the world and in the collective imagination of poetry. At the same time, it is a reminder of the sonnet’s own origins as a popular form, written in the Sicilian vulgate, not in Latin, a poem whose length lent it to memorization and repetition, a poem which could be read, and could be written, by ordinary men and women.
The contradictions in the sonnet’s significance begin at its own beginnings. Although the theme of the “distant beloved” was associated with the sonnet, as with much European secular verse, from its inception, one of the first women poets (samples of whose work we have extant) to write in a modern European language was “La Compiuta Donzella”âa pseudonym meaning “the accomplished” or “learned maiden.” She lived in Florence in the second half of the 13th century, predating Dante and Petrarch, and wrote, among other poems, sonnets, three of which survive. And the subject of her sonnets? Not a lover, unattainable or otherwise, but her desire to escape from a marriage arranged by her father and become a nunâwhich reminds this reader, at least, of another sometime-sonneteer, the Mexican poet Sor Juana InÃ©s de la Cruz, who, four hundred years later, took the veil in order to pursue her real vocation of writing and study. We do not know what became of “La Compiuta Donzella”âwe do know that Sor Juana was forbidden to write by the Inquisition, and died soon afterwards of the plague, a fate that was eminently and tragically “political” and entirely due to who she wasâa womanâwhere she wasâin colonized MÃ©xicoâand what she wrote. Some poets do not have the choice of being both of and not of their time and place. This is not an apologia for the sonnet form as such, merely a series of examples of poets in dialogue with the prosodic structure they chose which I happen to know well. (Another such is the British poet Tony Harrison who used Meredithian sonnets to examine the contradictions in a working-class man’s adopting the language of what he might well call the oppressors, in order to pay homage to his origins, and whose sonnets incorporate a kind of call-and-response between North-of England dialect and elevated diction.) Rukeyser and Brooks both considered form as organic to the poem’s development, and made vastly different choices in other texts, equally engaged in bearing witness.
It is also true that there are poets who are, in their lives outside their work, political activists, and those who are not. There are poets whose writingâlike that of Brooks, Rukeyser, Allen Ginsberg or Audre Lordeâarose from and developed their commitments, as well as poets like Ezra Pound about whom we can argue whether a political commitment colored, or distorted, the work. Thom Gunn’s depiction of the effects of AIDS on his community of gay men in San Francisco in The Man With Night Sweats is a political statement whether or not the poet originally intended it to be. Without polemic, by depicting and elegizing both a group of individuals and an era ended by an epidemic, in poems whose classical meters understate both their wit and their grief, by making through poems these men’s claim on readers’ attention, the poet is extending the parameters of accepted/acceptable discourse. His choice never to mention the acronym AIDS in his poems only increases the historical resonance of what Gunn, the poet, is writing in the temporal present, and obliges the reader to experience this resonance as well. Would Thom Gunn have written such an overtly, or at any rate easily “politicized” book in other circumstances? It’s impossible for anyone but the poet himself to say.
How autonomous is any poet choosing a form, a level of diction, allowing himself to follow a phrase, and image or an idea where it will take him, and is it the forces without or within that pressure him in one direction or another? The poet whose work is diminished or made invisible by cultural marginalization , by the “laws of the market” which take unsold copies off bookstore shelves in ten weeks’ time, does not suffer physically and psychically like the poet who is exiled, imprisoned, or tortured for her writings. Yet the work of the latter may be memorized by partisans, whispered by a midwife to a woman in labor, or (like the poems of Turkish revolutionary Nazim Hikmet) recited by rebellious military cadets, while the work of the former may go unread for decades, only to be unearthed by a doctoral candidate seeking an unconventional thesis topic thirty years hence. Both poets were “autonomous” at the poem’s inception, with nothing mediating their words but the movement of a pen on a page â- and their own histories, and their own sense of the poem’s urgency. But I doubt that there exists a country, a culture, in the world today where poetry’s autonomy is not compromised by the circumstances of its reception, if not of its creation.
How much can we choose our very choices? “Our subjects/ choose us; not otherwise,” I wrote myself as a twenty-six-year-old American expatriate in England during the Vietnam War. Can a poet who does not see himself as essentially “political” write poems which effect radical change almost inadvertently? Wilfred Owen, the man, was radicalized by the experiences that informed his poems. We cannot imagine Owen, the poet he became, without World War Oneâwhich does not mean he would not otherwise have developed as a poet. It is difficult to imagine other poets, like Rukeyser and Carruth, as other than engaged writers, because it is the very enterprise of human growth, decay, and change inflected in human interactions on the intimate and global scale that engages them, Rukeyser the socialist optimist, and Carruth, the anarchist pessimist, alike. The history of African-American poetry poses this question again and again: what have the choices been for a poet born Black in this country and culture? She, like the writers “between states and languages,” is someone both of and not of the “majority” culture, even though much of American culture is African-American created art forms and the ways they have mingled with European inheritances. He, like every other poet, has the options of dialoguing with what has come before or attempting to change the way form and content inscribe each other. But for generations of African-American poets, a decision to not in some way address issues of cultural or racial identity, issues of history and justice, in their work was tantamount to a decision to write in disguise, or at least would have been considered so both by the African-American and the European-American literary communities. It is only the work of previous generations of African- American poetsâas well as that of “marginalized” poets in other cultures who moved their own concerns to the centerâpoets who were “chosen by their subjects” and who developed them heroicallyâwhich has made it possible for younger poets like Erica Hunt, Carl Phillips, Claudia Rankine, Reginald Shepherd and Thomas Sayers Ellis to forefront other choices, to have racial identity become merely one of the elements informing their work, a modifier, not a substantive.
Jack Spicer was intrigued by the image of the poet as a radio transmitter transforming the received electrical impulses into language. For me, the “impulses” are the times and places I inhabit as a poet; my own body and its changes, sensory perceptions, demands; the events shaping the lives of men and women, myself included, in my world, my two countries, my cities, my neighborhoods; and the impulses which come from language itself, as it is inflected by contemporary use, by the other languages I speak or read, by the way it has been used, and to what ends, by others, by the suggestions it makes to me of cognates, comparisons, contradictions, even as I work with it. And what poet would have it otherwiseâeven as he attempts to change the society he inhabits, even as she reveals the ways her own language and its history conspired to silence her. We do not (I do not, I cannot really presume a “we” in this or any other assembly of writers) wish the poet’s work to be subordinated to political pressuresâeither censorship or pressure from without (pressure to write in a certain way, on certain subjects, as well as pressure to erase them) or self-silencing from within. But neither do I (as a reader) wish for a poetry that has walled itself off from the breathing, bleeding world, manicured and modest, self-reflective and hermetically sealed.
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, who am I? And if not now, when?” These lines by the Jewish poet-scholar Hillel resonate in any consideration of the politics, that is, the way of inhabiting the human city, of the poet or the poem.
Poetry and Politics. Or poetry that extends beyond the boundaries of the self, to the open question of the possible?the construction of a society that promotes the “best” (free, democratic, just, flexibly dialectic, etc.) in our human natures.
James in his introduction speaks of two primary approaches for exploring the relationship between poetry and politics, the lexical and the formal. While I understand and admire the neatness of his taxonomic efficiency, I suspect there are hidden costs to reducing politically engaged poetry to these two terms, one that places intellectual and practical limits on what those poetries are able to contribute to the goals of a more just and equitable society. Besides both approaches have inherent methodological limitations: the formal can deteriorate into a kind of technological rationalism, the lexical can slide into puerility and narcissism and each can operate and avoid questions of power.
Once I was asked whether my poetry is about “real things”. It was a challenging question for me. I consider poetry a kind of writing about the real, even if it is, as in my case, a kind of speculation based on the “real world” of language practices.
Real life is constructed life and the enormous complexity of real life with its scaffolding of beliefs, norms, constraints and chains permeate our spoken and written language. In our plainest tongue and most vanilla lists, as well as in the most lapidary ad copy or art review, content and form blend. Composition is the use of rhetorics, formal and informal gestures that generate, constitute, elevate, perform or authorize the real, deploying language in ways that go beyond the content of the work, by shaping the way we read the world.
I come from a family of acute social observers, natural mimics and shrewd survivors. These traits, I’ve come to realize, go together, where observation has evolved to the point that we were situationally multilingual, able to speak several vernaculars, meaning always at least doubled, filling the form while tunneling under the wall.
As is true with many poets, I’m drawn to language variously, for its music, for language’s plasticity, capacity to limn sinuous thought, for its inextricable connection to experience, all of which have the power to still the world while reading the world/book.
But the language used to mediate social reality, social rhetorics fascinate me, for here race, class, sex and gender and power are coded in ways seldom acknowledged, transmitted noiselessly and invisibly, disguised as irrevocable speech, impenetrable text, absolute statement, catalog copy and other forms of triumph.
Part gesture, part command, these social rhetorics use syntax, prosody, features of repetition, emphasis and timing to re-enforce what often goes unspoken.
For instance, there are many layers to Al Gore’s statement during one of the presidential debates when he said “I’m your man.”
Considered poetically, the phrase I’m your man.
I’m your man.
I’m your man.
Send gender, race, class and power into a dance around the vitiated politics of our current period, when there doesn’t seem to be a national politics, only a global and local one.
Al Gore’s remark reduces the political sphere to the sub-local, to the level of the family and the personal? Al Gore proposes to be my personal president. His “I’m your man” comes out of a Southern blues vernacular not far removed from “Frankie and Johnny’s “he was her man.” The line spins a trope of heroicism that simultaneously addresses the single mom, the men in the audience who remember wanting to getting off the bench to play, the independent voter standing diffidently on the sidelines, people of color cooled to a politics tiresomely white and male.
There’s irony that our democracy comes down to one guy trying to oh gee a country of 240 million people, but there’s a whole world packed into three words, and who better than poets to trace its crumpled etymology.
Who better than poets to untangle the covert activity of political statements such as Thatcher when she declared, “There are no alternatives.” Thatcher, a master of such pithy worldview statements (my personal favorite is “there is no society, only individuals”) cleverly seized the center of the chessboard. By denying alternatives, she hypnotized her opposition, forced progressives to focus on her and react to her policies, and slowed creative pro-active response.
Her statement is utter nonsense to poets and other artists, but to people completely hostage to the fortunes of capital, whether in its sociopathic phase or not, her statement is world defining. But in the speculative worlds of art and science (and there must be others), her words seem like the rationalized terror of the shopkeeper’s daughter facing the raging stampede of a Christmas mob.
On Breakage: or deliberately breaking the rhetorical frames. For many years I have been interested in techniques that purposely unsettle the crisp ride and appropriate shade of perfect register and vocabulary. I like to read or write to topple the balance of opacity and carefully controlled allusion. And so I have been drawn to the structural and lexical disjunctions of surrealism, Oulippians, improvisers and scat cats, as aesthetic methods that valorize dreams and alternative semantics and as a group of political methods that seek new and unsuspected connection.
Is the Banana Republic, the store or what is left of our nation state? Is the Budget Surplus, that chimera of desire, your surplus or my surplus, a “free floating signifier” as poet Jennifer Geigl pointed out to me? The CASH Mo-NAY for my human rights (and that other guy’s too), as the payoff for the political discussion we don’t get around to having.
This makes it sound too tranquil an operation; in fact it most often is anything but pacific. As AimÃ© CÃ©saire comments in his essay on “Poetry and Knowledge”:
Everything I have just said risks making us believe in the poet’s
disarmament. And yet it is nothing of the sort. If I make it clear
that in poetic emotion no thing is ever as close to nothing as its
contrary, you will understand that no man (sic) of peace, no man
(sic) of depth was ever more rebellious and pugnacious.
The idea of the roused poet should be applied to poetry itself. This
is the sense in which it is appropriate to speak of poetic violence,
poetic aggressivity and poetic instability. In this climate of fire and
fury that is the poetic climate, currencies lose their value, courts cease
to make judgments, judges to sentence, juries to acquit.
Caribbean surrealists CÃ©saire, Rene Depestre, poet, CIO organizer and teacher Melvin Tolson, contemporary writers Adrienne Kennedy, Amiri Baraka, and Jayne Cortez are all, on occasion (and not every occasion), writers of politically engaged writing creating “miraculous weapons” in CÃ©saire’s words, writing that reveals the covert violence of everyday language through methods that introduce into otherwise placid environments, instabilities and breakdowns; poetic intensifications that deepen social knowledge.
Without this knowledge, how else can we parse “I’m your man” and hear it for what it is that our language will be used against us. How else will we get to the question of how our language will be used for us, our labor power, our imaginative power, our ability to read and write?and be used to create more freedom, more justice, more democracy.
Poetry as knowledge, as a way to gain access to what we know and have experienced. The reading and writing of poetry contributes to our knowledge by providing the occasion to practice skills and intuitions that lead to a liberation within our grasp (give or take a generation). Poetry makes the path out of ordinary language, language that is frequently instrumental, direct, instructional, prescriptive, remunerative and practical, the language of enlistment and persuasion. But it is the non-instrumental language practicesâexcess, lapidary, spare, mysterious, disjunctive, musical, muscular, molecular, anagrammatic and so on which provide equally if not more critical steps to building a just society. These are the useless plowshares that turn out to be swords and the swords that turn out to be ribbons and the ribbons that turn out to be irons and the irons that turn out to be fantastic kites. To paraphrase Marxâ”It would be more mysterious if there were no accidents at all.”
The strength of a politically conscious poetry is not its consistency, but in the tumult of its connections, particularly alternative connections. Poets bring new means to the transformation of our societyâas practitioners of the moment, connecting this moment and the next moment to past moments and as writers and readers, acutely attuned to dialectic of language, the role of language in social reproduction.
To return to the “two main approaches”, if only to transcend their limitations, the goal is to integrate insights from multiple approaches into more powerful, effective kinds of language and poetic practice. Our goal is to get to poetries that extend beyond the boundary of self in order to speak more cogently about the world that lies within the self, and the communities we create between individuals, incorporating the inflections, tones, tensions and terrors of community. The goal is to discover a human being in exchange for a reified version of the self, a field of the self that I think David Harvey means when he declares, “the body is an unfinished project.”
The long haul. “The time of the seed and DNA is not real or local time, it is irrelevant to subject speak, opening only to a place of agency” Gayatri Spivak. If, as David Harvey suggests, the political economy of the sign has replaced the political economy of direct material production, then there are multiple places for intervention, through our words, our writing which signal the radical, our seed carrying, our DNA of disruptive and rebellious and oppositional practices, our seeds of the utopian imaginary. Poetry contains the seed part of a speculative aesthetics pointing to yet to be created societies.
In this political economy of signs, there are other signs of oppositional politics emerging, politics that incorporates poetic act into its mode of opposition and expression, where performance is a means of engaging and empowering activists, mobilizing people instead of just sending them newsletters. We’ll no doubt be seeing more of this as the dust settles around the President, whoever that empty suit may be, and as we sift through the evidence that the real power can be traced in four interchangeable logos dividing up the 86 channels of non-event on our TVs.
1. What would it mean to say something new and useful about politics?
2. When poetsâthe example given is Euripidesâare banished from Plato’s Republic, it is not because they bring with them what William Carlos Williams once characterized as “the news.” In fact, it is just the opposite. Poets are “eulogists of tyranny,” formalists without content of their own, all too apt to cozy up to power and flattery. Poets, in this sense, are envisioned as the first propagators of “fuzzy math.”
Indeed the problem cannot be solved through banishment. Adeimantus protests to Socrates: “But they will go to other cities and attract mobs, and hire voices fair and loud and persuasive, and draw the cities over to tyrannies and democracies. . .. Moreover, they are paid for this and receive honorâthe greatest honor, as might be expected, from tyrants, and the next greatest from democracies; but the higher they ascend our constitution hill, their reputation fails, and seems unable from shortness of breath to proceed further.”
Imagine, if you will, Robert Frost, Maya Angelou, Miller Williams.
3. A second list: Ken Saro-Wiwa, Federico Garcia Lorca, Roque Dalton, Guillaume Apollinaire, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Sergei Esenin. There are a lot of ways that poets can and have died either for their politics directly and as a result of the political in action. How far might this be extended toward all forms of social death: Dan Davidson, Hart Crane, Virginia Woolf, Richard Brautigan, Sylvia Plath, Jack Spicer? Kathy Acker’s refusal of chemo with which to fight cancer.
4. Francis Ponge, sought by the Nazis for his work in the Resistance, hid in a pine forest and, while there, wrote a sonnet, the same sonnet, over and over and over.
5. Sometime around 1976, I gave the same readingâtwo weeks apartâin the Maximum Security Library at Folsom State Prison and at UC San Diego, sponsored there by the Visual Arts program. In Folsom, a setting that was not that unfamiliar to me because at that point in my life I’d worked for years with prisoners, there was a sharp divergence in the reception of my work. Generally speaking, African American urban prisoners, mostly from the Bay Area and Los Angeles, heard what I was doing as some sort of verbal jazz. I got a great response from them. The other large cluster at the reading were displaced cowboys from the central valleyâthere are a lot of these guys in the California prison system, or at least were thenâwhose musical roots were in country & western music, specifically the ballad. They had a much harder time at the more rapid shifts my work takes. At UCSD there was a similar breakdown: the students in the visual arts program who studied with David Antin and Jerry Rothenberg had a series of frames, from Art Language to Fluxus to Stein, which they could use to position my writing. The English Department students thereâthis was at a time when Michael Davidson’s work at UCSD was still largely confined to the libraryâresponded much more like the cowboys of the delta.
6. Saro-Wiwaâthe poet at the gallowsâsuggests a very different model than the one of the author as craven hanger-on implied by Adeimantus, but comes closer to the underlying reason Adeimantus finds himself anxious even after their banishment: they might go somewhere else and rile those other people up. Adeimantus’ concern itself proposes a different model, one in which state and cultural power run parallel, the former unquestionably stronger than the latter, but nonetheless semiautonomous phenomena that can be aligned or in conflict or possibly just muddled somewhere in between.
7. Another way to say this would be that politics, as the exercise of power, and poetry or literature, as the exercise of meaning, present parallel universes. It gets messy at the margins.
8. Lorca, shot for his sexual orientation in what amounted to a local settling of scores under the cover of the chaos of battle. Dalton, burned alive by his own comrades because he was thought to have been a traitor, a double agent. The brutality and capriciousness of the political are constantly evident.
9. Shifts in the culture vis-Ã¡-vis poetry. After the obscenity trials of Ulysses, Tropic of Cancer, Howl, and The Beard, prosecution for obscenity seems to have receded somewhat from the world of writing. In an era that has seen the uproar over funding for shows of the work of Robert Mapplethorpe, Karen Finlay and Chris Offali, and in which even Michael Palmer could be called a pornographer by a member of congress, Kathy Acker never was busted for the many uses of pornography in her work. However, Harold Robbins did sue her for plagiarism. The text in question, The Adult Life of Henri Toulouse Lautrec, does use Robbins at some point as a frame. But Lautrec follows Acker’s patented method of pornography + plagiarism = autobiography, and autobiography is profoundly what Lautrec is. Deploying a strategy not unlike the uses of style in Ulysses, each chapter proposes a different definition of truth in writing: documentary truth, legal truth, emotional truth, etc. In the chapter that focuses on the brief relationship that Kathy and I had together, the actual dialogue is so faithful to the original circumstances that I’ve wondered if she hadn’t in fact been taping our conversations. In another chapter, Kathy uses documents from in re van Geldern, a suit that I’d worked on over the civil rights of the incarcerated, to construct a portrait of prison life. Acker’s deployment of these materials echoes the work of Charles Reznikoff in his multi-volume long-poem, Testimony.
10. What lurks under the phrase “fuzzy math”: first, that numbers are conventional matters literally of convention. Change your definition and the numbers will change. Change your perspective and the numbers will change. Numbers, in this sense, aggregate nothing. Like Adeimantus, Bush, or more accurately, Bush’s writers, argue an absolute cleavage between form and content. What matters in the debate is not that Gore is said to fabricate nor that the concept math per se is intended simply to make us anxious, but rather the way it trivializes the concept of counting.
11. Had the Symbionese Liberation Army not been able to kidnap newspaper heiress, Patricia Hearst, Plan B was to kidnap the poet Robin Magowan, editor of the magazine Margins, nephew of James Merrill, brother of Peter Magowan, then the CEO of Safeway and now the president of the San Francisco Giants.
12. In 1965, Jerry Rubin prevented Michael McClure from participating in the first Vietnam Day Teach-in precisely because Rubin, chief organizer of the event, feared that McClure would read from Ghost Tantras, written in a fanciful roaring lion-speak. Rubin, who in those days was still very much the former reporter from a Cincinnati daily newspaper, was concerned that McClure would discredit the still embryonic antiwar effort. That was the same teach-in during which KPFA, the local Pacifica radio station, pulled the plug on its live broadcast of Norman Mailer’s speech when he used the phrase, “Hot damn, Vietnam!” Mailer’s words, read aloud but not broadcast, and McClure’s, not even read aloud, propose language beyond the limits of sense.
13. Ghost Tantra 1 (City Light Books, 1967):
GRAHHH! GRAHH! GRAHH!
Grah goooor! Ghahh! Graaarr! Greeeeeer! Grayowhr!
GRAHHRR! RAHHR! GRAHHHRR! RAHR!
RAHR! RAHH4! GRAHHHR! GAHHR! HRAHR!
BE NOT SUGAR BUT BE LOVE
looking for sugar!
14. For a time, an omnipresent pin on the lapels of writers in and around San Francisco read simply “I am Salman Rushdie.”
15. I am, so far as I can tell, entirely an identarian writer in that my modes of writing are precisely those I need in order to reach communicate with the audience that grows out of what I recognize to be my community. This community can trace its roots to Paris early in the 19th Century, Moscow and Saint Petersburg early in the 20th, to Whitman nursing troops during the Civil War, Langston Hughes’ lonely search for his father in Mexico, Lorine Niedecker scrubbing out school bathrooms, even to Basil Bunting’s work as a spy literally for the oil companies in Persia. Its politics historically have been incoherentâsomething I and others have been attempting to changeâbut some of its unspoken tenets are that poetic form be historicized, that national literatures be contextualized, that readers be understood as active agents, and that a good work demand the very most from reader and writer alike. To which I would add, as an explicitly political project, to explore the implications of Whitman’s Althusserian moment, the recognition that “I contain multitudes.”
16. Fuzzy math redux. The following definition of postmodernism appeared in the August 9/16, 1999 issue of the nation: “I mean Ãpostmodern’ in the sense of returning to narrative transparence in place of Modernism’s hermetic and allusive texture.” In this model, proposed by Alfred Corn, the postmodern is premodern, when what is really meant is anti-modern. This is postlepsis, speaking of the present as though it were the past.
17. If the poems and poets that appear in The New Criterion and The Nation are functionally indistinguishable, what does this imply for the politics of these two publications? What does it imply for the relationship between poetry and politics?
18. The battle for Seattle and other organizing efforts around the issue of globalization represents the most substantial new development for political action since the fall of post-Stalinism. It’s not confined to one country, one class, one race, or one gender & offers myriad different points of entry and potential for organization. As such, its strategic advantage is precisely that it’s global.
19. Prolepsis: to speak of the future as though it were the present. In the middle of the 19th Century, Marx, in what might have been the initial instance of irrational exuberance, envisioned that globalization as such was the necessary precondition for socialism. It would prevent both capital flight and the kind of embargo-driven containment strategies that otherwise would enable capitalism to cripple attempts at socialist agency. Marx already imagined the world as connected to be fact. Socialism-in-one-country, Stalin’s attempt to counter exactly the sorts of capital flight and containment strategies that were being leveled at the Soviet Union, at once confirmed Marx’s vision and demonstrated exactly how far from a global village the planet was.
20. One half of the world’s people today do not have electricity. Two thirds have never heard a dial tone.
21. Because it is trans-national, multi-cultural, poly-vocal, trans-gender, trans-everything, the globalization movement is capable of holding within itself grossly contradictory tendencies. The xenophobia of a Pat Buchanan sits alongside the decades of diligence practiced, for example, by Food First. Rather like the broad and diverse movement that opposed the war in Indochina, this coalition agrees only that it does not want the terms of globalization dictated by multinational corporations and their political servants. Unlike that earlier coalition, however, the globalization movement has no easily identifiable goal that it can establish, such as the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam.
22. During the years I worked in the prison movement in California, I knew some three-dozen people, a few of them quite well, who died needlessly and violently. Some died almost accidentally, like the man beheaded by a fluorescent light bulb, but a lot more of them died because of prolepsisâpresuming that the revolution was immanent, that the stakes had changed, that ends justified means and ethics died not apply.
23. What would it mean to say something new and useful about politics? It would mean that politics itself had changed.