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What’s a Political Poem For?

By Ange Mlinko

This is for Rigoberto following his Szymborska post.
A few weeks ago, I attended my first town meeting. Somehow, it was nothing like the town meetings of Stars Hollow, with its “lovable curmudgeon” of a mayor and enchanting agendas, motions to rename the streets to reflect their 17th-century heritage, etc. No, it was a town meeting in a toneless courtroom, presided over by a technocrat who wants to put zinc orthophosphate in the otherwise fairly pristine water supply. Zinc orthosphosphate is an anti-corrosive; its sole purpose is to coat the pipes because some villagers on dead-end streets have brown-water problems.
Offhand, I would say, this already sounds like a boring poem.


But allow me to quickly sketch the problem, in case there is a poem here after all.
There are also homes with sections of lead piping; they would benefit in one sense by having zinc orthophosphate coat their pipes. But there are drawbacks. The long-term effects of zinc orthophosphate are basically unknown, either for us humans who would absorb it in our drinking water and showers, or for the Hudson River into which it will flush for years. Also, one of the Republican board members nervous about the proposal says that coating the good copper pipes would interfere with their antibacterial properties. That might lead to something else being put in the water to make up for the loss. Always there are unintended consequences.
The politics around the proposal are fishy; even that conservative board member told me so over the phone. The mayor wanted to push it through quickly without any democratic checks and balances; he doesn’t even have an independent review of the chemical company’s proposal. Is there something in it for him? And what about the other board member on his side, why was her attitude so high-handed and dismissive toward the citizens who came out to protest the proposal? (She happens to have a career writing mommy articles for The National Review.)
So, what’s a citizen to do? Not much. Thanks to the efforts of half a dozen people who spoke up against the proposal, it was tabled. But another meeting this coming Monday will determine the final vote, and rumor has it that it will pass.
It is certainly true that more people could have turned up at the meetings and demanded accountability. It’s true that more mothers who cull their toys for lead from China and buy organic milk without hormones could have mounted a protest. They didn’t. Their young kids may be in bed by 8, but the typical commuter husband doesn’t come home til 9 or 10 and they don’t have experience in any sort of community action. I’m speaking too of myself, of course. I went to that meeting and spoke my piece, but I have neither the experience nor the drive to create petitions or posters. I don’t even know that many people—I’ve lived here a year and a half.
We’re astonished by the no-bid contracts in Iraq, but a no-bid contract in a small American hamlet seems impossible to interfere with.
Are there poems like this out there? And what do they look like, what pleasure might they contain?
Rigoberto says poetry is conservative if it does not address politics. I wonder what he would do in my position. Granted, this little story about a town, a mayor, and a chemical company does not compare to the larger horrors that preoccupy us as “citizens of the world.” But it is representative of a systemic problem. And I don’t know what he or Szymborska would do with it—would they write a poem about it? We know a poem would not galvanize the community. We know it would probably not shame the mayor or The National Review’s mommy track writer. We know it wouldn’t change people’s minds about the safety of the chemical. A poem isn’t the last word on anything (nor, for that matter, is a scientific study).
But if I wrote a poem about it, would it make me feel like I accomplished something?
So what’s a political poem for?

Comments (44)

  • On November 15, 2007 at 11:29 am Henry Gould wrote:

    Off the top of my head. . .
    You might find curious and circuitous correspondences between toneless courtrooms, zinc orthophosphate, lead pipes, brown-water, dead-end streets. . . and Eden, pastoral, Arcadia, Romantic poetry, John Clare. . .
    You’ve set yourself a problem, or a riddle – to find the poetry in the drab & the unknown – the uncertainty attending any stepping-out of the privacy of home into the public square & the civic scramble. . . politics an art of compromise in more ways than one (you have to compromise your own privacy sometimes in order to take action – only to discover that you come home with a different, occasionally enlarged, sense of things)…
    What’s beautiful about the “common good” is that it requires a kind of generosity of spirit, a faith in the unseen. . . we call it “youthful idealism” (because it appeals to youthful unattachments), but it’s really an intellectual “virtue” (in Aristotle’s sense). . .
    – excuse me, someone just handed me a translation of Hesiod. . .

  • On November 15, 2007 at 1:26 pm Steve wrote:

    If you wrote a poem about it you would accomplish something. But you probably would not have done anything to decrease the chances of zinc orthophosphate being added to your water: the something would not be practically or politically efficacious (at least not in the sense your post suggests). I don’t know what would.
    What other steps might the town take to reduce the brown-water problems? Is the mayor one of the people who has the brown water?

  • On November 15, 2007 at 1:53 pm Don Share wrote:

    I’m not endorsing the following view, but introduce it for the sake of discussion.
    It’s Kevin Davies on the politics of avant-garde poetry, which appears on this web page belonging to Al Filreis:
    “I’m reminded of Ed Dorn saying something like ‘You’re handing me this piece of paper and telling me it’s political? It’s about as political as a gopher hole.’ I’m totally agnostic about the ability of unpopular verse to affect change in the political world. I just don’t believe it. I don’t think for a second, oh, here I am striking a blow against capital. Political change is not made by the choices that we’re making in verse. We’re doing this so that certain possibilities can exist in the world. So that works of art can exist, temporarily, and they’ll certainly bear traces of our political vision because if they don’t they’re no good.”
    — quoted by Steve Evans in “The Disobedient Poetics of Determinate Negation” (in progress)

  • On November 15, 2007 at 2:31 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    Gopher holes have been known to strike repeated, and very annoying, blows against Agribusiness. I attest to this as a native of the Gopher State.
    Neither Kevin Davies nor the people he’s dismissing have got it quite right. The Compleat Poet maintains -absurdly, stubbornly – an irrational faith in some deep connection between the inimitable poetic utterance and the people at large. And this connection has political valence. The poet has an ineradicable role to play in the conversation which is a culture’s self-consciousness. This truth is reflected in the political participation (and martyrology), on different scales & to different degrees, of poets from the Hebrew prophets, through Homer & Ovid & Virgil, to Dante & Milton & Shakespeare, to Marvell & Blake & Whitman, to Akhmatova, Tvestaeva, Mandelstam, Vallejo, to Brodsky & Auden &. . .

  • On November 15, 2007 at 3:06 pm Steve wrote:

    This discussion, like many such discussions, isn’t going to go any further until the people involved explain what they mean by “political.” I’ll start: “having to do with actions of public consequence, esp. those undertaken by a government or by representatives thereof.” (Of course, now I have to say what I mean by “public.” Uh-oh. Can we say that it’s the opposite of “private”?)

  • On November 15, 2007 at 3:22 pm Ange wrote:

    I confess: I am much of a manichean when it comes to lyric and information. Lyric is always aestheticizing information, and information is always trying to bring lyric down. So generally I have not enjoyed political poetry nor have I produced it. I’m still interested in how I might overcome this manicheism, though (Pickard helps, and I am onto Levertov soon), so I appreciate these comments.
    Contra Davies, I don’t believe we write poetry to keep certain “possibilities” alive, though that’s a nice side benefit. We do it because it pleases us. And (hopefully) we want to please others.

  • On November 15, 2007 at 3:26 pm Ange wrote:

    … and I agree with Steve’s definition of political.

  • On November 15, 2007 at 3:47 pm Sheryl Luna wrote:

    Ange,
    I read Rigoberto’s post very differently. I interpreted his post to be about the poems themselves and the solitary nature of an individual’s engagement with the blank page. I also interpreted it to be about the fact that he liked Symborska’s speech. I didn’t hear anything about the need for verse to be political, but moreso about the marginalizing of such verse in demands for a narrow aesthetic that is not political.
    The two (poem/politics) are not mutually exlusive, which of course depends on the poem. Oh, yes I liked the part about poetry as privileged or privilege in this country. I haven’t had time to read the speech, but I think I will tonight.
    Someone asked what a poem can do politically. There’s a poem called “Stupid America” that helped galvanize the Chicano Movement.
    I don’t know what politics means exactly when it comes to a poem, but it seems that so much depends on an audience, and I am probably posting this too soon.
    Lumping “political” poems together is problematic and I like that people are trying to define what this means, but a poem can do something in Segundo Barrio and I don’t have time to say why.

  • On November 15, 2007 at 3:49 pm john wrote:

    Ange, your comments re: info v. lyric echo Hugh Kenner’s handling of the idea of “fact” and how it intruded into 17th century lyric, and how lyric had a tough time accommodating it, leading to the travesty-anthology “The Stuffed Owl.” You’re practically quoting Kenner! The argument is in his book “The Counterfeiters,” which I’ve recommended before.
    Culture *can* have political consequences. As gay people win more civil rights, “Will and Grace” is part of the reason why. Lyric poetry is a minority enterprise, but it contributes to the life of the whole culture.
    As for the case at hand, politically anyway — “brown water” is in most cases an aesthetic problem and not a health problem! Lead pipes *is* a health problem. The solution? Replace the pipes. The reason not to: Decades of “can’t-do-it-ist” cant being spouted by so-called conservatives. “We can’t do it, we can’t afford it, we can’t raise taxes, government doesn’t work. I think we can’t I think we can’t I think we can’t. We’re the little engine that can’t.”
    SO — short-term cheap solutions with unknown, possibly long-term, possibly expensive, consequences come to the fore.
    The can’t-do-it philosophy is a slander against the human spirit that, short-term at least, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. False prophets in the name of profits. The liars, the negativists, the promise-breakers, the cheats.
    If you come across a solution to THAT, please do tell!

  • On November 15, 2007 at 5:07 pm jane wrote:

    Oh what the heck, I’ll take issue with Steve’s definition of “politics” (though not with his assertion that it has to be defined for this to be a conversation with more signal than noise). But I won’t offer a counter-definition (and some boring person will insist that one has to). Instead I’ll note that as long as “politics” is assumed without discussion to mean western Democracy, and what’s at stake is how effective or “fair” it is, we’re not actually discussing politics. We’re discussing management. And this does indeed make it quite puzzling what role poetry might, or ought, play.

  • On November 15, 2007 at 10:28 pm Ange wrote:

    Sheryl,
    I think we agree that Rigoberto is not dogmatic, but he does say:
    “The critique here is directed to the issue of poetry as privilege, of creativity in countries (like this one) where one’s political leanings are suspect, where poets tout their liberal beliefs and yet their poetry is conservative—because poetry is not the place for politics. That doesn’t seem to be the case for visual artists or other genres of artistic expression (even for fiction writers, I would argue), but it certainly is the case in poetry, where the vocal, dominant group is quick to assail any poet with convictions as a citizen of the world.”
    Well, there is dogmatism everywhere: poets who think that political views have no place in poetry, and poets who think political vision should be in neon lights at all times. It depends where you’re coming from. I have felt more oppressed by the latter sort, personally. And yet, I’m still curious as to whether it’s possible to write about life, even life at a town meeting, without devolving into pure banality.
    Which brings me to John. I put that Kenner book on my library queue — it still hasn’t come in! But I’m totally dying to read it. I hope to get to it before my blogging stint is up.
    You’re totally right about the Republican cant’-do-it-ism: obviously it would be better to replace the pipes than to put some chemical in the water. But our country isn’t interested in infrastructure spending. It’s too expensive. We’re a fucking debtor nation. We have no money. Incidentally, this sheds a rather ironic light on Rigoberto-via-Szymborska’s characterization of our “privilege.” Our privilege is an illusion.
    One more thing. I was waiting for someone to bring up the influence of art on culture vis-a-vis identity politics (“Will and Grace” is as good an example as any). Identity politics isn’t really politics to me. Economics is politics. “Will and Grace” is just a manifestation of gay people having consumer/ad power. Nothing wrong with that. Nothing wrong with “Will and Grace” or its effect on culture. But let’s be real: money drives culture, not the other way around.

  • On November 15, 2007 at 11:17 pm john wrote:

    Ange — You’re right that money drives culture, and that economics is politics. I would only urge you to consider that the expansion or contraction of civil rights has economic consequences as well.

  • On November 15, 2007 at 11:37 pm Rigoberto wrote:

    Sorry to arrive a bit late to the discussion. I was out being political (that is, at an immigration rights rally), which means my activism is not always in the form of writing poetry or blog entries. A citizen poet is someone who knows when to sit down and write, and when to stand up and take action. To the marginalized, even having a voice is critical, and yes, political, whether or not we arrive at a solution. Futility in language? Uselessness of expression? What privilege to be able to think that way or to give up so easily. Those have never been options for people of color or other marginalized groups, like gays or immigrants–communities I am a proud member of.
    I could expend more energy here, but I see no reason to convince Ange of my point of view. She is certainly not someone I will consider an ally. But not an enemy either. In my worlds, there is always room for dissent, disagreement and discontent.
    Instead I will offer the following point to ponder for the readers of this blog and this discussion:
    Gloria Anzaldua, our greatest Chicana lesbian thinker, said in an interview that the survival of marginalized people depended on our ability to adapt: Now that the marginal people are finally getting to a space where we can say, “I am creating my subjectivity. I am taking center stage,” all of a sudden theorists say “The subject–there is no such thing.”
    Ange, get off the computer and organize your community. The poems come after.

  • On November 16, 2007 at 7:41 am Henry Gould wrote:

    Here’s a definition :
    Politics : an activity by means of which a people, through law &/or coercion, orders its common life, so as to perpetuate itself and promote the general welfare.
    Politics, in this sense, should be distinguished from economics, not identified with it. We may believe that “money drives culture”, or, as Ecclesiastes puts it, “money answers everything” – but let’s not call that politics.
    I would say (responding to previous comment) that neither “identity politics” nor the power of money should be equated with politics per se. Both interest groups and moneyed interests try to influence political actors : but they don’t necessarily dominate them (unless those political actors oblige).
    It’s possible that there’s a relation (of motive) between our cynical despair over democratic politics, and our desire to exclude “politics” from poetry.
    A close reading – a political/aesthetic/historical hermeneutic – often reveals the political ramifications of a literary style. The poet’s very effort to elude such social effects brings to light the strength of the spider-web. But a “strong poet” will turn this entanglement to advantage : poetry’s capacity for multiple meanings and allusive resonance makes it possible to sing about courtrooms, lead pipes & zinc orthophosphate, while actually meaning something else.

  • On November 16, 2007 at 8:26 am ange wrote:

    Rigoberto,
    Both my parents came to the US in the 1960s from ten years in Brazil, and before that post-war Europe, with nothing. So I don’t need any lectures from you on privilege, thanks.
    Ange

  • On November 16, 2007 at 10:03 am Matt wrote:

    Rigoberto: “I was out being political…” “…get off the computer…” “The poems come after.”
    Sounds good to me. Actually, it sounds like you’re arguing for a separation of poetry and state, which seems to be what Ange is saying too.
    I just thought of that church and state analogy, but I just realized, that’s what all this reminds me of. Self-righteous people who say poets must write about politics are like those “creationist” people who claim schools aren’t being fair if they don’t include lessons on that crock of b.s. known as “intelligent design.” Not that your politics are b.s. I probably agree with them myself. The irritating thing is the pushy attitude behind it all. Of course, in real political life, it’s good to be pushy and irritating–that’s what protest rallies are all about, bringing a message to the attention of people who wouldn’t give it a moment’s thought if other people weren’t marching around screaming about it. That’s good. But in poetry, you’re preaching to the converted, so it’s just not that useful, and the poems usually turn out to be pretty boring. I’ve never responded well to preaching of any kind anyway.

  • On November 16, 2007 at 10:28 am Steve wrote:

    It’s a long thread with sustained interest (cool)! And it provides by its very existence further evidence, as if further evidence were needed, that we find it easier to talk about general, ethically-charged public topics than to talk at any length about partiicular poems (alas)!
    We need to distinguish the possible ethical-political-public effects of poetry at a given time and place (2007 in Dallas, say) from the possible ethical-political-public effects that works of art and culture of any sort might have in the same time and place. Often the range of possible effects for poetry is quite, quite different (almost always smaller-scale and subtler) than the range of effects for other sorts of art.
    Thus Ange says– and she seems to me, for once, quite wrong–
    “I was waiting for someone to bring up the influence of art on culture vis-a-vis identity politics (“Will and Grace” is as good an example as any). Identity politics isn’t really politics to me. Economics is politics. “Will and Grace” is just a manifestation of gay people having consumer/ad power. Nothing wrong with that. Nothing wrong with “Will and Grace” or its effect on culture. But let’s be real: money drives culture, not the other way around.”
    I’d say the driving works both ways, and so would many economic historians: the belief that it works only one way is sometimes called “vulgar Marxism.” But just as it would be absurd to look at public life and politics without following the money, it would be a mistake to disregard the way the feedback loops among money and cultural production, supply and demand, expectation and action, can work.
    “Will and Grace” would never have had a pilot, much less a commercially successful run, if studio execs didn’t think people wanted to watch a comedy about gay men (or about smiling caricatures of gay men). The studio execs would not have held that belief if they did not regard gay people as already having “consumer/ad power” (though I’d be shocked beyond belief if most of the people who watched “Will and Grace” identified themselves as gay).
    But the sitcom’s existence, and (slightly later) its success, did something to make open bigotry less acceptable, and something to make many sitcom-viewers slightly more accepting of gay people in real life, partly through the perpetuation of stereotypes more “positive,” less pernicious, than the stereotypes they replaced, and partly through simple habituation. That’s not exactly Brown v. Board, but it’s progress. If that’s a strained example, check out almost any episode of the television show ER from before about 2001: there’s always an obtrusive lesson about a hot public topic, e.g. why we need to make safe places for gay teens: it is, or was, educational television, and it must have changed some people’s minds.
    That doesn’t make it deep, or subtle, or worth watching more than once, but that’s not the point. The analogy with 19th-century sentimental fiction goes pretty deep: in both cases you don’t go there for intellectual depth, nor for stylistic achievement, but you do go there for what scholars call “cultural work.”
    People who get upset about the lack of political efficacy in poetry are upset in part because the poems we write and read don’t have the audience, hence don’t have the public force, of network TV. I’m sure they don’t, but that particular incapacity doesn’t often make me sad.

  • On November 16, 2007 at 11:03 am Rich Villar wrote:

    With all due respect to Rigoberto, I have some extra energy to expend. His response here is a good one, though.
    The tenor of these conversations combine two of my least favorite activities: amateur political science and rank elitism disguised as poetic criticism. This coming from an MFA candidate with a degree in politcal science. Masochistic tendencies, you say? Duly noted.
    Identity politics is not politics? The assertion is inherently political. Why don’t we have a discussion on the poetics of straw man logic?
    Ms. Mlinko mentions something about poets and neon lights. Name the harm here, please: which poets are the ones so glaringly, garishly, inappropriately neon-poetic in their work?
    I can name literally dozens of poets, personal friends of mine, who carry the label “political poet,” sometimes willingly, sometimes not. Almost without exception, they are poets of color. Why is that? Could there be something more to the idea of “privilege” that critics and poets are not willing to address?
    How’s THAT for politics in poetry?
    I have not written about contaminated groundwater or town hall meetings, but much of the poetry I treasure makes reference to the everyday existence of people on the margins, poetry rife with imagery about some of the unkept promises of America, various poetic forms and movements that are rich in the experience of survival and improvisation in the midst of this unwieldy language-beast called global politics.
    I am a Puerto Rican and Cuban poet with an acute awareness of my race and ethnicity. My very existence is political. Spare me, critics of politics in poetry: If I listened to you, I wouldn’t be writing at all.

  • On November 16, 2007 at 11:28 am Corey wrote:

    I agree with Steve that part of the political efficacy problem is audience (and that other media more easily engage with information)–why turn to poetry well then well crafted political essay (or TV documentary) has said it already?
    But much of the discourse of politics is too mundane and technical for many poets to want to take up (in their writing at least). Idealism is great and welcome (there’s a lot be said for the politics of imagination; if you can’t dream it, it can’t happen), but politics is also, as Weber put it, “the slow boring of hard boards.” You’re going to spend a lot of time building coalitions and debating a carbon tax versus a cap and trade system, agricultural subsidies and the vagaries of international trade. I’m not saying poetry can’t be made out of these things, I’m just pointing out that this is the stuff of real change in politics, the decisions that affect people. Poets aren’t excited about technocratic solutions (and perhaps poetry does better dealing with other aspects of the political).
    That said, I’m glad some poets stay away from the political in their work. Too many poets aren’t informed enough or feel that to enter the dominant political discourse is to endorse the status quo (or to support the discourse is to support the status quo). Thus we have Margaret Atwood railing against NAFTA in the early 90s (in prose), regardless of the fact that trade experts like Paul Krugman were saying that it wasn’t that big of a deal.

  • On November 16, 2007 at 12:27 pm Jasper wrote:

    Ah, one of my favorite topics!
    First off, I should say that I can already hear “zinc orthophosphate” in one of your poems, Ange. It has the right rhythm, the right mixture of ease and complexity of both sound and sense. And no doubt, if anyone could make a poem about a town meeting, it’s you. Would it have political effects? For you, perhaps, it might clarify an orientation or commitment. Otherwise, it seems kind of doubtful, no?
    I like Henry’s definition of politics, except for the general welfare part and the assumption that there is a unitary “people” and not different classes of people acting for or against their own interests. The only way you get general welfare, in my view, is when the people who are the most screwed-over in the current order find a way to refuse and resist their oppression/exploitation. General Welfare (or Colonel Welfare, for that matter) is a phantasm that enforces the status quo.
    I think we need to disentangle the production of political knowledge and political attitudes from the production of political effects. Poetry can be great in terms of the former, even when, and sometimes especially when, the poet refuses political meaning or an instrumental didactic stance toward the reader. I tend to think that most great poems can be read politically–that they provide insight into the contradictions of their moment. One might, I hazard, learn a great deal of that kind of thing by reading your poems, Ange.
    Poetry is not so good at producing political effects; even Kevin Davies, one of the poets who has the most to teach about the current political moment, will probably not be stopping the war in Iraq anytime soon. I wouldn’t want to say that poetry has no political effects, because, when connected to particular moments and movements, it obviously can articulate the desires and dissatisfactions and become an object around which to rally. It’s probably fair to say that about certain people and schools–Black Arts, Dada, the Beats, etc.; Langston Hughes, Neruda. Adrienne Rich, etc. And this no doubt happens with other figures, too, if we’re willing to think about smaller collectivities. But the effects are still comparatively slender even with somebody like Neruda, probably, and even then, unless combined with some kind of force, mostly concern orientation, desire and knowledge.
    And, of course, on what seems to me like the other side, poetry can become a big part of national mythology and national self-conception: whether we’re talking about the work of Whitman in articulating the (contradictory) values of American liberal democracy, or the work of Celan in facilitating mourning and atonement in Germany. But the whole “changing the culture” thing is a pretty slow and unpredictable process, I think. Look at the contradictory uses to which Auden was put after 9-11. What, exactly, did that accomplish? Was it anti-war? Was it pro-war? Was its meaning “let’s bomb Afghanistan!” or “let’s stop the preparations for war!”? Politics isn’t saying “ugh.” It’s saying “ugh” and taking a stand and doing something about it.
    Nevertheless, I do think, with Adorno, that many of the poems that I love seem a preserve for free (or more free) thought and feeling, and inasmuch as they index and struggle to produce those things, they also speak of a possible world in which that freedom is generalized.
    .

  • On November 16, 2007 at 12:35 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    Elementary political wisdom, Rich Villar : people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. When you accuse people of “amateur political science” you yourself are being elitist (even if you hold a degree in that subject). Politics belongs to everybody.
    When I wrote that “identity politics” should not be equated with “politics”, I meant that in trying to find a general definition for the term, we should look for what is essential. Interest-group activism – whether by people treated unjustly, by Daddy Money-bags, or whoever – is only one way of participating in what I, personally, consider the essential thing : seeking the creation of social order which serves the general welfare & a good future.
    Nor would I want to equate social or political identity with identity per se. You may assume that’s necessary, in your particular case : but I disagree. You may find it empowering to take hold of and bring to consciousness the full weight of your political identity – and I agree with that, I think everyone should try to do that. Nevertheless I would not want to reduce my identity to my social identity.
    I happen to be white anglo-saxon male American. My scurvy kinfolk have been in this country for close to 400 years, doing lots of good and bad things. You may read my ethnic background totally politically. But for me to equate, or to reduce, my personal identity to that history, would be to put myself – my Self – in psychological chains. & I make the same distinction for every other person.
    In fact I hold that making that fundamental distinction – between persons and social identity – is one of the keys to practicing the politics of social justice and the common good.

  • On November 16, 2007 at 1:32 pm Steve wrote:

    Corey, are you the same person as Joshua Corey? Thank you for bringing up Max Weber’s great and enduring lecture “Politics as a Vocation”: it says what I wish I had said. You are exactly right… until you get to “poets aren’t excited about technocratic solutions.” I have written and published poems about regional land-use planning, mass transit subsidies and, come to think of it, town water supply management– though that doesn’t mean the poems are any good. (And– to repeat– I don’t think those poems will do much to cause more or better mass transit subsidies. They just happen to address that topic. If you want more mass transit subsidies, write an op-ed, call your state rep or your congresscritter, or launch a hit TV show.) Technocratically yours…
    PS: Jane, are you this person?

  • On November 16, 2007 at 3:12 pm Corey wrote:

    “are you the same person as Joshua Corey”
    Nope, but having read his blog several times, I’ll take that as a compliment.
    And as for your poems, I’m glad to see someone picking up the mantle for technocratic nerds and policy wonks.

  • On November 16, 2007 at 3:44 pm Rich Villar wrote:

    Gee, Henry, I’m sorry you think your people are scurvy.
    Of course, I too enjoy a little sarcasm, which is why I’m acutely aware of the contradictions of hating politics while discussing politics. Thanks anyway for the five-cent vocabulary lesson.
    I was specifically addressing you when I mentioned identity, but since you mention it: I can’t advocate for any essential social order without knowing essentially who I am. My personal histories, though they may seem obvious or apparent now, did not come without a great deal of research and reconstruction. And they certainly don’t come without a lot of baggage. How I deal with that…and how my country deals with it…is central to identifying what kind of social order best serves me, and people similiarly situated with me. I don’t see this introspective essentialism as putting myself in psychological chains–rather, I think it frees me to speak without fear.
    But enough of the amateur punditry. Let’s get really essential here. Who in the hell has the right to tell another artist what he/she should or should not put in their art? If politics in poetry (however dubiously some parties wish to define that) is not one’s cup of tea, well fine. Don’t buy the book, don’t go to the readings, don’t give them the book prizes. To say it is one thing…but to advocate separating art and politics as a rule for others is something else entirely. And that’s what I’m reacting against more than anything else.

  • On November 16, 2007 at 3:59 pm Ange wrote:

    I concede, Steve, the vulgar marxism. I went overboard to make the point because, on this site at least, lots of political outrage is expended over images & symbols of justice (and the example of Will & Grace would be such an image — or, say, poetry prize distribution). But once, just once, I’d like to see political outrage from minorities over something with economic rather than symbolic ramifications: the subprime mortgage fiasco, for instance. Minority families who sunk their nest eggs into homes they are now losing because of predatory lenders, disrupting their kids’ educations, social stability, all those things that nurture the future poets. Somebody is now getting rich off that loss — a loss that was modeled, predicted, and salivated over from the get-go. Seems like it’s much easier to regulate the image of groups on TV — but is it political on the same scale?
    Anyway. For me, the question of building a self — or “soul” as Keats had it — in poetry is tied with the question of the political only in the most intimate way. How my poetry is made is determined more by what I fall in love with than by ethical pronouncements. I hope that comes through when I write posts on, say, Tom Pickard (which reminds me, I hear your lament, Steve, that these abstract questions generate more talk than particular poets and poems). Maybe someday I’ll write a separate post on this, but it seems to me we propagate ideas more through falling in love — as Steve loves Kasischke or Alicia loves Housman — than through lecturing.
    And thus I end my lecture!

  • On November 16, 2007 at 4:16 pm bill knott wrote:

    . . . not that it’s relevant, because of course it’s not, but there is a book called “Selected Political Poems” posted on my blog along with all my other books for free perusal and download . . .

  • On November 16, 2007 at 4:31 pm Don Share wrote:

    I wonder if Philip Metres’ distinction is helpful: he recently spoke of a “documentary” poetry – rather than political poetry, as such – (countering George Szirtes’ view of the “real life inside the poem” that can not serve as “evidence” in a court of law) —
    “The successful documentary poem withstands the pressure of reality to remain a poem in its own right: its language and form cannot be reduced to an ephemeral poster, ready made for its moment but headed for the recycling bin. While it may be that such poems will not ‘stand up’ in a court of law, they testify to the often unheard voices of people struggling to survive in the face of unspeakable violence… These poems ride the ambiguity between a nothing and a something that can be used. Their power resides in their negotiation between language of evidence and language of transcendence.”
    His remarks can be found here.

  • On November 16, 2007 at 5:57 pm john wrote:

    Leaving aside, for the purposes of this discussion, hip hop, as a genre of verse associated with music (and therefore, for the purposes of this discussion, not poetry), I must say that any number of minority slam-style poets include economics in their poetry, as have many other minority poets whose coming-to-maturity pre-dates the Slam movement.
    Many Slam-style poets also “testify to the often unheard voices of people struggling to survive in the face of unspeakable violence,” in that elegant phrase that Don quoted.
    The Slam style is related to the traditional jeremiad (the poetry of engagement par excellence), in that they are both of the oratorical persuasion.

  • On November 16, 2007 at 6:13 pm jane wrote:

    Yes yes, Marx, Weber, Adorno. Don’t stop now! Lenin, Bakunin, Gramsci! What the hell — Badiou, Saint-Simon, Rosa Luxemburg!
    Though I don’t see this in Jasper’s post, I just continue to wonder about this conversation: what are you doing, invoking these thinkers as if their thoughts could bolster your arguments, when their thoughts were integral parts within the structure of imagining an end to capitalism — and working for same. The ideas can’t help us think about poetry’s role in improving the operations of neoliberal humanism any more than supply side economics can show us how to ease exploitation.
    [Yes, Steve, as Big Daddy Kane said, “I believe that’s me.” And thanks for your words on Jasper’s book; it’s really superb and of the moment.]

  • On November 16, 2007 at 9:40 pm Corey wrote:

    “when their thoughts were integral parts within the structure of imagining an end to capitalism”
    Yes, that’s our problem. We haven’t devised an end to capitalism,
    Wait, what? I’m not sure what you’re advocating (or discussing). Is “neoliberal humanism” a problem? Because this is where I think poets and their political engagements go off the rails.
    I invoked Weber to make a point about the difficult reality of politics: changes are incremental and take a lot of effort and compromise.
    I’m not quite sure what your point is.

  • On November 17, 2007 at 9:09 am Kent Johnson wrote:

    One measure of effectiveness for a “topically political” poetry–though certainly not the only one
    –might be the extent to which it resonates in international contexts, suggesting thus that its concerns engage a measure of “universality.” The most successful English-language political poetry of the present period, in this sense, would be Eliot Weinberger’s What I Heard about Iraq, a documentary poem, if there ever was one, that has been published in part or whole in literally dozens of countries (and not just in poetry magazines, but large circulation magazines and newspapers). The work has had millions of readers, and numerous translations are still in the works. There has even been an award-winning play based on it.
    One could think of it as the “Holocaust” or “Testimony” of our time–only with a mass readership.
    So I would say there are gopher holes and there are gopher holes!
    By the way, anyone who is interested in the subject of “political poetry” should read Philip Metres’s recently released _Behind the Lines_, the most ambitious study, I’m pretty sure, of war-resistance poetry ever done in English.
    Kent

  • On November 18, 2007 at 4:51 pm Chris wrote:

    Leaving aside the question of aesthetics for a moment, it might be useful to distinguish the bogeyman of “identity politics,” as the superficial celebration of cultural differences and “diversity management,” from the horizon of antiracist and antisexist struggle, including everything from third world feminism to decolonization, from demands for economic self-determination to calls for a globalized anticapitalist resistance.
    The uncoupling of race and processes of racialization from purely “economic” concerns doesn’t magically clear the ground for a renewed politics of class struggle. It dovetails with a well-worn narrative of the fragmentation of the left in the late 60s due to the “particularistic” demands of more militant ethnic and gender movements—a development demonized by an array of liberal nationalists and Democratic party shills from Todd Gitlin to Paul Berman. Eric Lott dubbed has called this a “boomer liberal formation [that] has ironically brought a version of `60s idealism to bear on current affairs as a way of refusing certain strains of radical thought and activism today.”
    Would black protestors in Jena not be engaged in proper “politics” because of a nominal attachment to “symbols of justice”? And how does the prison-industrial system not possess “economic ramifications”? Does the immigrant rights movement, in fight against xenophobic appeals to white labor, an economic or merely “cultural” issue, with merely cultural or merely economic consequences? How is the invocation of the impact of subprime mortgage fiasco on racialized communities “proof” of the political passivity of minority groups without taking into account the ongoing and nearly 50-year old history of community organizing against the practice of “redlining”? And is “redlining” a purely “economic” phenomenon?
    What is gained by rigorously separating race from class, or gender from class, and converting these terms into a zero-sum binary?

  • On November 18, 2007 at 11:20 pm Corey wrote:

    Chris,
    I certainly agree that issues of race and gender can’t be neatly separated from economic issues, nor are “identity politics” or similar single or “special” interest coalitions outside the realm of politics. Whether or not I agree with a particular interest group, they’re rational manifestations of representative democratic politics (shorter me: of course people will organize around some common political concern, material, cultural, or symbolic. Nothing wrong–nor non-political–about that).
    But Lott’s critique of the “liberal middle” is misguided and misses that problems facing “the left” or any counter-conservative political movement: much of America is conservative or at least very amenable to conservative policies. Part of this is because America is more conservative then some wold like to admit and some of it is because their are certain powerful myths lodged in the American psyche that thinkers like Lott blithely disregard. That, and anarcho-syndicalism is a tough sell for the American people, to say nothing of recognizing the liberal policy failures of the 60s and 70s–which the “liberal middle” has, but for some reason Lott regards this as a failure rather than intellectual honesty.

  • On November 19, 2007 at 9:06 pm ange wrote:

    “Leaving aside the question of aesthetics for a moment…”
    That’s my limitation — I can’t.

  • On November 20, 2007 at 11:17 am jane wrote:

    I’m with Ange; it’s actually not clear what it would even mean to “leave aside aesthetics” on a Poetry Foundation discussion board. However, including aesthetics in is a far different matter than isolating aesthetics as an independent category that can be debated, evaluated, championed without explicit reference to politics, or economics, et cetera. That is to say, they are mutually-informing (dare I say “dialectical”?) categories. The folks who fail to think this condition, and instead isolate any such categories from each other, end up looking silly:. This would be true equally of folks who reduce poetry to historical effectivity, and folks who think that aesthetic matters are independent of history, and have fixed values that can be deduced from a poem as some independent object.
    Just as it would be absurd to leave aside aesthetics in this venue, it would similarly be comical to leave aside the political and economic on the wealthiest poetry discussion board in the history of the world, especially where some participants are being paid to participate, no? What was it that the great aesthete of modernity, that “art for art’s sake” guy, said? “Everything can be summed up in Aesthetics and Political Economy.”

  • On November 20, 2007 at 10:56 pm Ange wrote:

    Well, Jane’s with me, and I’m with Jasper, who’s also with Jane, so we agree pretty much.
    My political/moral failings are on display in my newest post.

  • On November 21, 2007 at 12:13 pm Britney wrote:

    Dear Jane,
    Do you talk like this in bed?
    Yours,
    Britney (Grrr)

  • On November 21, 2007 at 2:48 pm jane wrote:

    Dear Britney,
    you want a piece of me
    Jane

  • On November 21, 2007 at 4:31 pm Chris wrote:

    Hmm. I take your points, Ange, Jane, and Jasper. A curious maneuver indeed to preface a post on inextricability and interarticulation by bracketing such an essential and complex term as the “aesthetic.” Although my response was primarily to Ange’s desire “to see political outrage from minorities over something with economic rather than symbolic ramifications,” or the contention that “identity politics isn’t politics.” One of my major concerns here is how movements for racial justice are misread as being “particularistic” because they are premised on a reductive notion of “identity”–that is “identity” as an isolated thing, a monad, rather than a power relationship that’s inseparable from the larger workings of the economy. One could say the same of feminism.
    I’ve been struck by how much the online commentary, over the issue of gender inclusion in various poetry anthologies, has relied on arguments that are essentially identical to the kinds of twin charges one hears again and again leveled against ethnic literatures (as simultaneously too much of the same, “there are only negligible difference between cultures”…or what Bernstein called the “official space of cultural diversity,” and too divisive, evincing a deficient understanding of our “common culture”…or the liberal narrative of the traumatic fragmentation of the New Left).
    As for the relationship between “identity” and the “aesthetic,” oy, perhaps this is an opportunity to take up a longstanding argument with Jane, not about the relationship between the two (which is, I’d agree, a given), but about the peculiar trajectories of the arts after a blanket call for the politicization of the aesthetic or for the aestheticization of the political.The latter being Walter B.’s surefire formula for fascist aesthetics, and the former, well, one could read the volatile and contentious interactions between various contemporary ethnic poetries and Language writing to see how the very terms of what constitutes a “dialectical” relationship are up for grabs.
    The “aestheticization of the political” could be read as a moment of that institutional multicultural project, that endless parade of equally contingent particularities, where race morphs magically into ethnicity, into “culture.”
    Not exactly a progressive development.

  • On November 21, 2007 at 4:58 pm john wrote:

    In a materialist view, in which culture is subsidiary to biology, Mallarme’s (& Jane’s) Aesthetics and Political Economy are subsets of the question, “Who’s getting laid?” In the animal world, “status and resources” are the words they use instead of Mallarme’s. Britney’s right. Grrr, indeed.

  • On November 22, 2007 at 6:24 pm jane wrote:

    Dear John,
    not so much. Materialism and socio-biology are scarcely the same. One of them is silly. And “the animal world,” being distinguished form the human world in several rather easy ways (e.g., animals neither produce culture, nor extract surplus value from other animals), is exactly a measure of what not to measure for, in conversations such as this.
    @Chris: I’m not sure I recognize the point of contention, if you allow that “aestheticizing” is something other than the present participle of thee verb form of “aesthetic.” “Aesthetics’ is a category; “aestheticizing” isn’t the activity proper to that category, but the reduction to that category. Yeah?

  • On November 23, 2007 at 7:24 pm john wrote:

    Dear Jane,
    Thank you! I was expecting that you would respond to my joke with a tut-tut about my use of the word “materialism,” and you didn’t disappoint!
    Just for the record: Animals do produce culture. Whale song, for example, is constantly evolving. Whale song within a species may differ according to geography. Humpback whales from one group may influence the song of humpbacks from a different group. The scientific consensus on the function of the song lacks certitude, but most scientists believe it to be a form of sexual display, and as the Coasters said, baby that is rock and roll.

  • On November 23, 2007 at 9:32 pm john wrote:

    Dear Jane (again),
    You are right that “socio-biology” was the word I was looking for, and not finding. (Temporary aphasia, alas.) A case could be made, and I didn’t make it, for socio-biology-as-materialist worldview.
    In any case, I regret my snotty reply. I didn’t actually expect you to reply to my sloppy verbiage, though I did wonder. My apologies.
    Animals and culture: people have observed apes using tools and teaching the use of the tools to others. Obviously, homo sapiens (a typically conceited self-description!) can be distinguished from our fellow animals any number of ways, including our matchless capacity to wreak havoc on other species, a possible example of which, if memory serves, occasioned this whole discussion.

  • On November 24, 2007 at 2:04 am Chris wrote:

    I’m not sure that there’s much contention to be had, aside from wondering out loud about the historical vicissitudes of what gets classed as aesthetic, what political. And how the entire question sounds differently in the context of identity understood as cultural representation, where it seems imperative to examine specific histories of constraint and capacity.
    Under these conditions, an either/or might still sound better than a both/and.


Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, November 15th, 2007 by Ange Mlinko.