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Political Poetry

By Kwame Dawes

George Lamming, a West Indian novelist, observed something interesting to me yesterday on the phone. He was speaking from Bathsheba, Barbados. He referred to a book that he thought I should read, although I can’t recall the name. The point of the work was that somehow, in the last fifteen years, the concept of the market became the accepted model for engaging just about anything. He spoke of it as the insidious triumph of market values.


We were talking about book blurbs and how they had become the definer of quality even when there was no quality there. His issue was that somehow, the pressure of the market had somehow made this act of endorsement a necessary part of the marketing of art. This is Marxism 101, of course, but he was observing something quite specific here. He was suggesting that somehow, in the last ten to fifteen years, any suggestion that this hegemony of market aesthetics was untoward or obscene has disappeared. Even revolutionaries spoke in terms of market value and branding,
Later that day, another friend reminded me of a Bob Marley lyric: “Who’s gonna stay at home/ When the freedom fighters are fighting?” She was talking about how the idea of a revolutionary artist, someone committed to the idea of a physical act of resistance and revolution through music, could be so easily co-opted by the comforts of “Babylon” and could eventually see such resistance as futile and passé. She declared herself a revolutionary, still. And she made me wonder about what the revolutionary poet would look like—what the revolutionary poet would write.
Then at around three o’clock, my friend, the novelist and poet, Chris Abani, calls to ask me a poetry question—something about the word, death in a poem. He was in an airport on his way somewhere and working on a long poem. He read the opening passages of the poem to me. I was struck by the sheer immediacy of the language, the contemporary feel of it—the sense that he was writing in the now and he was asking tough questions about the current political landscape. The writing was beautiful, filled with the clarity of a poem aware of its occasion. It felt political in the way that great poems can feel political—as if the eyes of the poet are wide open, willing to take in everything and to tackle everything no matter how difficult. When I hung up with Chris Abani, I wanted to write a big poem, too. I am not even sure where his poem will go, but knowing Abani, it will be nothing, if not political, nothing if not engaged and committed to seeing.
I realize that I am partial to poems that have something to say—something immediate, something urgent.
Political poetry in America is a victim of the very circumscribed political climate that exists in this society. America’s media does a good job of making the society seem like one that is fully aware of its political energies—of a nation divided, a nation of politically minded people who are constantly thinking politically. But American’s political range is so narrow that I am constantly struck at how shallow political thought and insight can be. America’s great genius has been to establish the parameters of what is the norm along a narrow line, making the radical anything that might stray even slightly outside of those markers. So that people who believe in the woman’s right to an abortion are radical—almost revolutionary. We actually pretend that when a politician is called a radical leftist even though he or she is a member of Congress, that such a person is really a radical. In that sense, the American political poem is a safe poem. The radical American poem does exist, but one can’t help but see that this radicalism is all relative.
Amiri Baraka became radical again, at least in the view of “the establishment” when he not only wrote, but read at the Dodge Festival, the poem, “Who Blew Up America”. His outrageously radical proposition was that someone in power in the Israeli (and by extension the American) government knew enough about the 9/11 attacks before they happened to warn their nationals about going to work in the Trade Center that day. It is, admittedly, a disturbing proposition, but if Baraka is revolutionary there are certainly more radical works of his than this to prove this idea. Yet one has the sense that the quite defined parameters of extremism in America, which, incidentally offer greater latitude to the right than the left (Rush Limbaugh is not a rabid dangerous nut, just a man who tells it like it is), are largely responsible for the demonizing of Baraka, the poet.
At the heart of all of this is the conviction that poetry really can’t effect any change, and so what is the point of political poetry? We may have decided that political poetry is rhetorically suspect and artistically questionable. The challenge that one has to find poems that seem dangerously political in our established poetry journals, like Poetry, for instance, tells me that somehow there is a suspicion about the artistic merit of political poems. Spoken Word artists abound that seem unfazed by these ideas. They will assume the posture of a Marley and chant down Babylon given the chance. And while it is true that, as Lamming suggests, the market is affecting even this fertile space for political poetry (complaints abound that Slam poets and other spoken word artists are relying on the cheap attention that predictable “sex” poems can bring, for example, given the market based restrictions that have led to watered down shows like Def Poetry Jam), the spoke word scene is more likely to present us with political poetry than the “non-spoken word” scene.
I have spent some time trying to determine the extent to which living in America has effectively altered my own aesthetics and interests and my political clarity and daring in poetry. I do continue to write political poetry, poetry that could be unsettling to people, but it occurs to me that I do think hard about the possible ramifications of presenting certain kinds of poems in the current political climate in America. I wrote my poem “Fat Man” eighteen years ago. It is a poem about American imperialism, about the bullying of nuclear power in the hands of America, and about the discourse of coercion and arrogance that shapes American foreign policy. I wrote the piece while living in Canada, and my band, Ujamaa, performed it on stage and even recorded it to a very deceptively buoyant poppy reggae beat. About seven years ago, I began to perform it on stage as a poem. Then 9/11 happened. In the early spring after the attack I was doing a mini tour through the small towns of Colorado—driving around in a rented rugged jeep from town to town. I decided to add “Fat Man” to my set. After a reading in Salida, a beautiful small town set against impossibly grand mountains, someone came up to me and whispered, “Thank you for doing that, you are so brave.” It felt odd to see his furtive glancing around to make sure no heard him. Then a woman came up and did a similar thing. Others did not look me in the eye. Everyone who spoke to me about the reading spoke about “Fat Man”, and I was called brave. What I felt was uncertainty and fear. I felt like an idiot for misreading the space. But, for the first time, outside of an airport, I started to understand something of the pressure that had began to come down on people to be really careful about not sounding “unpatriotic”. I have to admit that I did not perform the poem at any more of the Colorado venues. I was spooked by the whispers and the conspiracy of encouragement. Of course, I have since performed the poem, and after some coaxing, I allowed it to be published in a journal.
The story is not so much about a grand conspiracy of silencing people in America or the erosion of the freedom to express oneself—after all, no one has ever asked me not to read that poem or to even think hard about whether to read it or not. The story, though, is about the way that I wanted to react to what I felt in a palpable way from the people who came to speak to me and from those who did not. There was an atmosphere of repression that combined with a peculiar uncertainty about how to speak about government policy that seemed troubling and wrong, and yet remain deeply patriotic. What was most striking about this situation is that I knew that I could quite easily omit that poem, and continue comfortably along without having to worry about these pressures. I would remain a political enough poet—I had enough race based political poetry that everyone seems to accept as fitting for American political poetry. I could even argue with my myself that the poem was not really the kind of revolutionary anthem, like Marley’s brilliant “Babylon System”, that called people to action:
We been trod’ing on the winepress, much too long
Rebel!
Rebel!
We been taken for granted, much too long
Rebel!
Rebel!
At best, I was trying to make people think about how America engages the world, and given that, I really was not going to change anything with the poem. This is how the political gets subsumed by the rationalizations of daily living. And in America, the comforts are such that one has to continue to prick the conscience to appreciate how bad things are out there.
Some would like to argue against the political poem, but they are simply nuts. Political poetry is as old as poetry and it is as elemental to what poets need to do as anything else. I don’t mean here that the mere act of making poems is political. At some theoretical level, this is true, but by that token, so is breathing. I am talking about poems that are doggedly political—willing to put one’s political views on the line and willing to challenge the status quo or champion the status quo through the force of poetic language.
My suspicion is that there are a lot of political poems out there. Perhaps the problem is the one that Lamming talks about—the force of the market to silence or push aside political thought in art. I would love to know where people are finding their political poetry. I would like to know whether there is a body of poems out there that will help us understand something of the historical significance of the world in which we are living today.
So I would like to start here a list of contemporary political poems that people think have really be willing to tackle the current political realities. In other words, I would like folks to share the names of such poems, the authors and where possible the links to these works. Surely, there is a “Dulce Et Decorum Est” out there for these times. In the mean time, I will be thinking about my new poems and their political currency.

Comments (7)

  • On May 9, 2007 at 11:23 am Rachel Zucker wrote:

    I read at Bryant Park last night with Cathy Park Hong and Christian Hawkey. I read two political poems, “To Save America” and “Guantanamo.” It was a little scary and very exciting. I’ve been wanting to write and read poems like these for a long time.

  • On May 9, 2007 at 12:46 pm Michelle Leclaire O'Neill wrote:

    Thankyou for your article on political poetry. It has been my style since the Vietnam War and continues to be. I have a body of political poetry, some of which I’ve read at local readings in Pacific Palisades. Of course,I am willing to share it in any way that is appropriate Michelle http://www.leclairemethod.com

  • On May 9, 2007 at 12:46 pm Michelle Leclaire O'Neill wrote:

    Thankyou for your article on political poetry. It has been my style since the Vietnam War and continues to be. I have a body of political poetry, some of which I’ve read at local readings in Pacific Palisades. Of course,I am willing to share it in any way that is appropriate Michelle http://www.leclairemethod.com

  • On May 9, 2007 at 2:06 pm Valerie Trueblood wrote:

    My list would be too long; here are a few:
    John Haines (decades of beautiful, chilling poems about the drive for mastery and the fate of the mastered):
    http://www.archipelago.org/vol8-3/haines.htm
    C.K. Williams (whole books of political anguish) One of the latest: http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/poetry/2007/04/16/070416po_poem_williams
    and “War” (Not the short one on NJPoets but the long one in THE SINGING)
    Adrienne Rich’s “The School Among the Ruins”:
    http://www.poetsagainstwar.com/chapbook.asp#Rich
    August Kleinzahler’s “Sunday Morning” (from GREEN SEES THINGS IN WAVES), about the dogs of the homeless.
    Alicia Ostriker’s comical, savage “Fix” (from NO HEAVEN) about “the puzzled ones, the Americans.”

  • On May 10, 2007 at 10:24 am emily warn wrote:

    “In Argentina the torturers demanded the prisoners
    Address them always as ‘Profesor.'”
    From Robert Pinksy’s poem on torture:
    “Poem of Disconnected Parts” in Poetry, February 2006

  • On May 10, 2007 at 11:49 am Brian Hadd wrote:

    Muldoon I guess, wrote something omitting Baghdad from battle Beginning B or whatever in “Horse Latitudes”. Politics is gross.
    The Hood Company

  • On May 12, 2007 at 1:43 am Jeffrey wrote:

    D. Nurkse has a wonderful new poem called Ben Aden that was recently published in Field magazine. The poem is in the voice of an Iraqi who is being forced to dig his own grave at gunpoint. The gun is being held by an American soldier. One enchanting element of the poem is how the speaker is calm, and at peace emotionally, much more so than the twenty year-old soldier holding the gun.


Posted in Uncategorized on Wednesday, May 9th, 2007 by Kwame Dawes.