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Why are poets aligned with the left?

By Lucia Perillo

I have pondered over this question, and was reminded again about it when the Harriet bloggers had a phone conference recently, and some kind of anti-Bush or anti-war entendre that was uttered by someone produced among us a knowing chuckle.


Now the answer could be that poets sit around thinking, and that anyone who thinks long and seriously will be led to liberal conclusions—that war is, in principle, to be avoided and that people should be treated humanely no matter what their circumstances (whether old, ill, imprisoned etc.) That wealth should have a reasonable distribution among the populace. Therefore: liberalism is in some deep way correct and true.
Or it may be that poets are aligned with the left because they tend to share the concerns of the poor, or at least the not-rich, having only moderate incomes and job stability, maybe no job stability (as in the blogged-upon case of Etheridge Knight). This would imply that poets share leftist sentiments out of compassion. And that poets are, by nature, compassionate.
I get irked, though, when poetry blindly takes up the cause of liberalism without in some way nodding to the assertions of the other side, the other side being the non-left rest of the world. And when poets are assumed to have common natures (for example: compassionate). There is an assumption that we share the same—is it political? no, more widespreadly social—views. This assumption makes poetry more monolithic than it is, and undermines the (naïve?) hope that some poets harbor about the value of poetry in the social commons. That poetry may sway hearts, however corny a thing that is to say. This is not possible because the right is excluded from poetry altogether.
I wish I knew more about the history of poets on the right. James Dickey, a poet whose canonized work I like quite a bit, I’ve heard tell was a political conservative (this is how blogs spread rumor). It would serve poetry well if the right had a voice in it, so that there would be a challenge for the left to rise to. A counter-song.
Maybe this is why there is not much good poetry written about war (OK: Homer) compared to the bulk of good poetry written about love. Poets tend to lapse into propaganda and polemic when they try too hard to “make something happen,” as Auden warned us. Yet it is a good dream, for poetry to serve the civic good in some direct way,
while realizing that through argument with others we make rhetoric (isn’t that how the old chestnut goes?) That poetry is argument with the self.
I hope poets with more of the historical sweep on this subject than I have will comment.

Comments (74)

  • On June 23, 2008 at 1:36 pm Doodle wrote:

    Not much good poetry about war? Surely something from:
    Virgil, Horace, Byron, Yeats, Whitman, Andrew Marvell, Milton, Dryden, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Shelley, Thomas Hardy, A.E. Housman, Robert Graves, Edward Thomas, Emily Dickinson, Heinrich Heine, Isaac Rosenberg, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Ivor Gurney, Appolinaire, Charlotte Mew, Edwin Muir, Stevie Smith, Miguel Hernandez, Frederico Garcia Lorca, Christopher Logue, David Jones, Rudyard Kipling, Randall Jarrell, Karl Shapiro, Keith Douglas, Alun Lewis, W.H. Auden, Allen Tate, Yehuda Amichai, Adam Mickiewicz, E.E. Cummings, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Philip Larkin, Louis MacNeice, Primo Levy, Thom Gunn, Adrienne Rich, the writers of the Old Testament, ancient China’s anonymous bards…
    and arguably Herman Melville?

  • On June 23, 2008 at 1:48 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    1. The left is traditionally opposed to liberalism, which is synonymous with support for the market & individualism.
    2. There are hundreds of poets who have written about war.
    3. There are so many poets of the right I can’t even begin: Eliot, Yeats, Larkin, Pound . . . . wearying to continue the list. There’s no correlation whatsoever between poetry & political position.

  • On June 23, 2008 at 1:51 pm Corey wrote:

    I think it’s important to separate the concepts of ideological liberalism (or conservatism) and political liberalism and conservatism. While it’s true that many poets are politically liberal (that is, largely aligned with the Democratic Party in particular and, perhaps, welfare liberalism in general) there’s more ideological diversity. Margaret Atwood is a self-described Red Tory, which makes her a kind of liberal conservative: socially liberal but economically (and culturally, depending on how you define it) conservative, with a strong belief in a “common good” and a need for the state to help provide that good.
    As many poets are well off (in relative quality of life terms, not in income earning) and highly educated, they tend to track with other highly educated individuals who are more socially liberal even if their political sympathies are more conservative (think David Brooks), so in that respect they’re not too different from other professions.
    In the end, I argue that a lot of it has to due with historical trends and (in America at least) the two-part political system. A poet like Mark Nowak is a leftist but is he a liberal? A lot of Marxist/communist/collectivist ideologies aren’t very amenable to the liberal tradition; one can be a leftist but anti-liberal. If I’m a social democrat who wants a broad social safety net, but tolerates a lot of market activities and private ownership of property, which would put me squarely against some people on the left. This isn’t to say a poet like Nowak is actually against any of these policies, but there’s a lot of positions I can imagine poets holding that, broadly speaking, put them on the left but represent serious disagreements with each other.

  • On June 23, 2008 at 1:51 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    There are basically two reasons why many poets proudly wear their political allegiance on their sleeve (or t-shirt, as the case may be) :
    1) They have a very high opinion of their own convictions, and a sincere belief in their own deep sensitivity and wisdom & political understanding
    2) They basically think of poetry as a branch of fashion, or popularity contests, and they will do anything they can to ingratiate themselves with their “readership” (the mob).
    These two motives sort of mutually support each other

  • On June 23, 2008 at 2:33 pm Joseph Hutchison wrote:

    I agree with Henry Gould. Like him, and unlike most other poets:
    1) I have a low opinion of my own convictions, and a sincere belief that I’m really too stupid to understand political issues
    2) I basically think of poetry as a kind of onanism, or dilettantish navel-gazing, which allows me to remain blissfully devoid of any desire to communicate with readers, who after all have the mentality of herd animals and so wouldn’t be able to understand my lofty writings anyway
    Perhaps, Henry, we should start a little club. I’d be perfect for it … though I’m not quite sure about you….

  • On June 23, 2008 at 3:33 pm Matt wrote:

    I agree with Joseph Hutchison. Like him, and unlike most other poets:
    1) I have a high opinion of my own convictions, and a sincere belief that I’m absolutely right about absolutely everything.
    2) I basically think of poetry as a kind of oatmeal, or bland, obvious tripe, which allows me to remain blissfully devoid of any desire to communicate any genuinely thought-provoking ideas with readers, who after all have the mentality of herd animals and so wouldn’t be able to understand anything more complicated than a Hallmark card.
    Perhaps, Joseph, we should start a little club. I’d be perfect for it … though I’m not quite sure why any thinking person would have any interest in us. Oh well, who needs thinking people anyway?

  • On June 23, 2008 at 3:35 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    Hey Joe,
    Poetry Democracy is a big tent. There’s room for you, I think – if you would just get over this desire to communicate. Leave communication to the servants. Poetry is for dessert.

  • On June 23, 2008 at 8:27 pm D. A. Powell wrote:

    I don’t think of poets as being “aligned” in any way–they do sometimes coalesce into “schools,” but that’s usually just economy of motion: one or two herrings are always swimming out front; the others are gliding along, oblivious to how much poo they’re swallowing.

  • On June 24, 2008 at 10:00 am Henry Gould wrote:

    Sorry to be so facetious, Lucia. I think you ask a pretty interesting question : why do poets generally seem to cluster in the Blue State/left realm of the populace (if they do)? Mark’s & Corey’s distinctions about what “left” & “liberal” actually mean today are useful, but they don’t really answer it. I think Corey’s response, that poets are mostly in the college-educated professional group, & that this group is mostly liberal, is only a partial answer (it’s pretty close to tautological : poets are liberal because they come from a liberal group).
    I think your sketch of what a liberal person is, is rather idealized. Only liberals are compassionate, concerned about war and economic justice? I don’t think so. I think it would be more accurate to try to define liberal & conservative positions, on social and economic issues, in as objective or “values-neutral” way as possible, before passing a moral judgement on the quality of their compassion. We know only too well all the partisan cliches about the other side, whether Left or Right – but how much do they really tell us?
    I agree with you that there are some basic leanings which contrast liberal & conservative positions. The liberal supports a large government role in forwarding equal opportunity & social programs. The conservative favors smaller government, and emphasizes individual rights & responsibility. But I wouldn’t extrapolate too much from this, either about compassion in general, or views on war and peace. These descriptions – liberal, conservative – are maybe really too vague to even form a proper question about where poets in general position themselves.
    It seems ot me that a better approach would be to look more specifically at the last 100 yrs or so of U.S. history. What are the central, consuming dramas of this century? The hot war against fascism. The cold war against communism. The smaller wars for spheres of influence (Vietnam). The development of weapons of mass destruction. The march toward equal rights in democracy. The battle for labor’s right to organize.
    As I see it, one of the main underlying threads here is the extension of equal rights under democracy. It seems to me that it is to the liberals’ & the Democratic Party’s credit to have been on the right side of history, usually, on this issue (this was not the case in the previous century, when the Republicans spearheaded the abolition of slavery). Of course there was a self-serving aspect to this support for democratic rights (the vote count) – and the Republicans tried to limit this advantage by their “southern strategy”, which worked for a while – but only up to a point.
    Where does this leave the poets? Well, poets tell stories. They also, accroding to Aristotle anyway, deal in “universals”. If the main story line of the modern era is actually the expansion of universal rights, then, in a sense, the poets have their assignment. And their political alignment – speaking of course very generally – will follow from that. If the story of Everyman & Everywoman – at least in the political sphere – is the working-out of justice, based in universal equality, then poets will, for the most part, TELL that story, celebrate that story.
    But we are talking in massive generalities and abstractions here. & of course, the devil is in the details. & it seems to me that the masses of poets who simply take it for granted that their side MUST be on the right side of history – that they are the wise, compassionate ones, and those other (Red State) people are the warmongering troglodyte bad guys – it’s these complacent liberals who give both liberalism and poetry a bad name. They are complicit in today’s relentless dumbing-down, the partisan tendentiousness of public discourse.

  • On June 24, 2008 at 11:57 am Lucia wrote:

    I’m glad to hear from everyone who articulated various aspects of my glib observation in better detail than I did. D.A. is right–“aligned” is a poor choice. I like “coalesce” better (but can’t spell it), But I don’t agree with the analogy about fish, though I suspect it’s made in fun. We give out crowns to the fish in front, and then they swim with these heavy things on their heads, sink to the bottom and drown
    Umm…first off, but sorry Doodle et al,: the observation on war holds–many of those on Doodle’s list are not (to this U.S. based writer) household words. Who is Ivor Gurney? (Doodle makes me google.) Some of Ezra Pound’s war poetry is really vile.
    If you stuck a microphone in many (anglo) people’s faces and asked them to recite poetry, maybe they could come up with: “how do I love thee? let me count the ways.” If I scroll through my soggy cranial rolodex I come up with a score of war: 1, everything else: 38.
    I should know more stanzas about battle, they should have seeped into the general civic consciousness, but they have not, and why?
    (And how come these blogs are the province of men? Just wonder.)
    I wanted to also remark on D.A.’s post: poo is nutrious, My dog loves to eat cat shit. So while the frontrunners sink, the shit-eaters beat on, born ceaselessly into the future.

  • On June 24, 2008 at 11:59 am Collin Kelley wrote:

    I think Lucia’s whole post is fairly worthless, when it’s obvious she is not well read on the many, many, MANY poets who have written about war and done it with conviction and passion. To make a sweeping generalization that there is “not much good poetry” about war shows an incredible lack of research and general literacy when it comes to poetry. Or maybe it’s just pushing a conservative agenda. This post really surprised me…and not in a good way.

  • On June 24, 2008 at 2:26 pm michael robbins wrote:

    Lucia,
    Wow. I don’t know where to begin (best to let the inanity of your comment about “Anglos” pass), but it needs to be said that your knowledge of poetry — which appears remarkably thin — isn’t an index to the prevalence of war poetry. In fact, I imagine a number of people — even Anglos! even men! — could come up with lines from Tennyson (or Wilfred Owen or Milton or Shakespeare) on war as readily as they could the Browning you try to score easy points off. (She was a serious poet by the way; you should try reading that poem.) And moving the goalposts is pretty lame: who said the poetry couldn’t be “vile” or written by someone not a “household word”? Elizabeth Barrett Browning isn’t a household word — is she? So . . . .what’s your point, again?
    If you have to Google someone’s name, that doesn’t necessarily reveal anything about a general store of knowledge. It reveals something about you.
    Your “observation” doesn’t “stand”; it barely approaches the status of observation.

  • On June 24, 2008 at 2:27 pm Doodle wrote:

    Is the issue how well-read people are (“Who is Ivor Gurney?”) or how good the poems are? And some of EP’s war poetry is not vile, but even if you think it all is, you’re not going to write off all those other poets are you?

  • On June 24, 2008 at 5:26 pm Sheryl wrote:

    Hi Lucia,
    Thanks for the interesting post. Poets are often considered liberal, and the definitions of what liberal means are endless. Yet, I’ve known a few conservative ones who say they are liberal and vise-versa. My favorite conservative-liberal insists the economy is fine and is currently homeless. I appreciate thoughtful questions that ask us to think rather than chest-beating statements that tell us what we must think.

  • On June 25, 2008 at 11:41 am Lucia wrote:

    I was speaking of the poetry that’s been written about the current war, much of which steers the reader toward its own fixed, often obvious, conclusion (“war is bad”).
    Of course many good poems about combat have been written.
    A gander at the index to the Norton anthology reveals that love is a much more common theme for poets than war is. Perhaps because great poetry springs from the particular, and fewer poets will know the experience of love than war.
    Blogging, it seems, though, is based on the combat model. I did not know this when I signed on.
    I want to post Pound’s Canto 73 but I’ll have to type it, as I can’t find it in digital form.
    So I’ll put it up later.
    My initial query was: why do poets coalesce around leftist ideals (sure, poet have come from the right, but the overwhelming majority do not.) It seems people jumped into combat mode before the question could be explored by a diversity of voices. Perhaps the combative tone scares people.

  • On June 25, 2008 at 12:17 pm Travis Nichols wrote:

    Lucia asks: And how come these blogs are the province of men? Just wonder.
    Collin responds: I think Lucia’s whole post is fairly worthless . . .
    Harriet sighs.

  • On June 25, 2008 at 12:32 pm Rich Villar wrote:

    Is there anyone left on the planet who thinks this war was a GOOD idea? At this point, I would argue that even thinking Republicans could get a chuckle out of an anti-war, anti-Bush entendre. It’s a little tough to decipher without knowing what that entendre was, but it is nonetheless telling that this blogger has set up poets as pinko lefties because a group of them simply chuckled at our naked emperor.
    My two cents: poets are some of the most conservative people I’ve ever met. And not just because they enjoy a good wine and cheese reception, or because they hold on ferociously to terms like “avant-garde.” (Irony, thy name is poetics.) They may vote Democratic, but they’ll do so because they know that their cash flow will probably improve with a Democratic Congress in control of the machine. And what’s more conversative in American politics than voting one’s pocketbook?
    As for this assertion about love and war. I generally don’t enjoy war poems that celebrate the glory of battle, but rather poems that humanize wars (including the current one). Or, you could argue, the poems that simultaneously ponder love and war? In that vein, I would turn to Aracelis Girmay’s “Arroz Poetica,” or Martín Espada’s “Blues for the Soldiers Who Told You,” or former Harriet blogger Rigoberto Gonzalez’s “The Soldier of Mietlán.” Nobody sweeps Trafalgar’s bay in these poems, but they stay with you anyway.
    And while this board is in the mood to send people to Google and chastise them on their lack of reading, I would like to point out the inexcusable omission of Yusef Komunyakaa from the various reading lists on this thread. Not sayin, just sayin.

  • On June 25, 2008 at 12:34 pm Don Share wrote:

    Speaking of combat, I’ll chime in to recommend Lorrie Goldensohn’s book Dismantling Glory: Twentieth-Century Soldier Poetry along with her anthology, American War Poetry.
    Love and war are intertwined in The Warrior by Frances Richey – poems she wrote to her son, Ben – a Green Beret who served two tours of duty in Iraq.

  • On June 25, 2008 at 12:57 pm Annie Finch wrote:

    I think that Lucia’s original post raises a very interesting question, which certainly warrants, as should any question raised on the Poetry Foundation’s blog, respectful and serious comment. The fact is, that though there have certainly in the past and in many other cultures been numerous poets who wrote well about war, as the posted list of numerous great poets above makes clear (and yes, Elizabeth Barrett Browning is a household word in my household, at least), there really is no Virgil in the contemporary U.S, nobody writing “How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix,” nobody upholding the standards of a warlike culture (Just the other day I was reading Byron’s “The Battle of Carthage,” a blow-by-blow account of a particular battle against “the infidel” that had taken place not many years before he wrote the poem, and feeling astounded that such a poem could have ever been written and published—things are so different now).
    Over the years I’ve come up with some theories/possible explanations for this, which I throw out here in no particular order:
    1. Economic. Poets used to be supported by courts and governments, and perhaps their sympathies were influenced by this fact. Now they are supported primarily by universities. Just a thought.
    2. Aesthetic. War has become less photogenic. It’s not as much fun to write, or read, a poem celebrating a bomb dropping on innocent families as it is one about brave soldiers charging on horses.
    3. Educational. I agree with the poster above who said poets are more highly educated and follow the general demographic there in being more liberal.
    4. Historical. People are not, I think it is safe to say, as excited about war as they used to be. Maybe this is due to aesthetics, or maybe a result of our deepening, global-village familiarity with other cultures, which makes war harder to justify. (it was Eisenhower who finally admitted, not too long ago,”I think that people want peace so much that one of these days government had better get out of their way and let them have it.” It’s hard to imagine that comment being made by a head of state even a century or two earlier). If war is at last moving towards going the way of dueling, poets may simply be in tune with the culture in not being so excited about it either.
    5. Media. Byron’s poem, and many other poems on civic subjects, were a way to make international events vivid for people who had no TV or movies or internet. Now that is unnecessary. We have more information (and more propaganda) than we know what to do with. Instead we use poems to jump-start our spiritual and emotional lives.
    6. Poetic. The popularity of the lyric as opposed to the epic or other narrative modes of poetry make it harder to write poems in support of war (antiwar lyrics are still, of course, fairly relevant and they are still being published).
    Whatever the reasons, it does seem to be true that most contemporary poets in the US oppose war. The Bush administration even seems to have a hard time coming up with respected literary figures to bring to their events, in contrast to the swarms of poets who signed up for Poets Against the War and other such organizations.
    Lucia, have you checked out the results of the recent NEA program that tried to get veterans to write poetry about war? I know there was some controversy about this in the pages of Poetry magazine a few years back–Marilyn Nelson was one of those who wrote in, I remember.

  • On June 25, 2008 at 2:29 pm Sheryl wrote:

    Hi again,
    I had actually written more, but I did delete some of what I wrote earlier since I thought it best to keep it short.
    One reason may be that this particular war is being fought by volunteer soldiers (without a draft) and that in many ways some of us are not connected to people actually being affected by it. The war in some ways is the background noise on television sets. It is easy for us to be disconnected to the suffering of soldiers and the people involved in it overseas.
    I remember that the Vietnam war was on t.v. much more vividly than this one. As a young child, the images struck me hard. Now, such images are not shown. I do think Brian Turner wrote a book of poetry about the current war, but I have not yet had the opportunity to read it. It’s on my wish list.
    Once someone told me that love poems abound, but that writing a successful poem about love was actually very hard since so many are already out there. Maybe there were more poets drafted in other wars than there are in this current one, and maybe those poems have yet to emerge in print about this one.
    There was an anthology of poems written by the detainees through the U. of Iowa press I believe.

  • On June 25, 2008 at 4:08 pm Don Share wrote:

    The controversy Annie refers to was generated by Eleanor Wilner’s essay, “Poetry and the Pentagon: Unholy Alliance?” – which appeared in the October 2004 issue of Poetry, and can be read here.
    Rich is so very right about Yusef Komunyakaa, who happens to be one of a number of people – including Marilyn Nelson – who responded to Wilner in the next two issues of the magazine; click here and here to read what they had to say.

  • On June 25, 2008 at 5:20 pm Jillly wrote:

    I’m liberal but not a statist or collectivist anymore & am a libertarian I guess & have classical liberal views now. Which, to many liberals nowadays, are probably considered conservative!
    I am mostly anti-war — I am not a pacifist though I aspire to be. I have respect for warrior energy and don’t necessarily believe the military is an automatically “bad thing” (like my parents & other more-liberal-than-me friends believe). It’s necessary. But I think the way the military has been used by the government for the past 50 years is stupid.
    As far as this war goes, well, Brian Turner seems to have gotten some notice as a poet.
    I know someone who does writing workshops for veterans (she is a veteran) “to assimilate the wartime experience.” http://www.milspeak.org/

  • On June 25, 2008 at 6:53 pm the unreliable narrator wrote:

    Harriet sighed; and H.D. wrote Trilogy.
    And aren’t all the neo-formalists neo-cons? KIDDING. But there is of course Michael Lind….
    NB by the way that, as Corey notes, liberal ≠ leftist, if that is of importance, which I think it to be. And not all conservative writers are warmongers (cf. Mark Helprin’s finally getting the boot from the WSJ), nor are all leftists pacifists (cf. the scandalous wealth of British poets who died in WW I),
    Hang in there, mija. You certainly got the historical sweepers to comment, anyway!

  • On June 25, 2008 at 7:32 pm Mary Meriam wrote:

    …Examples gross as earth exhort me:
    Witness this army of such mass and charge
    Led by a delicate and tender prince,
    Whose spirit with divine ambition puff’d
    Makes mouths at the invisible event,
    Exposing what is mortal and unsure
    To all that fortune, death and danger dare,
    Even for an egg-shell. Rightly to be great
    Is not to stir without great argument,
    But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
    When honour’s at the stake. How stand I then,
    That have a father kill’d, a mother stain’d,
    Excitements of my reason and my blood,
    And let all sleep? while, to my shame, I see
    The imminent death of twenty thousand men,
    That, for a fantasy and trick of fame,
    Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot
    Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,
    Which is not tomb enough and continent
    To hide the slain? O, from this time forth,
    My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!
    – Hamlet

  • On June 26, 2008 at 10:16 am Don Share wrote:

    Another case on behalf of the war poets, should you feel a case needs to be made, can be read and viewed here.

  • On June 26, 2008 at 12:40 pm Lucia wrote:

    Annie Finch makes a useful classification. And I liked Henry’s analysis; I’ve had some of the same thoughts. Lately I’ve been suffering from this knee-jerk annoyance when I’m reading a recent celebrated book and come to the writer’s “anti-Iraw-war poem”. (I am guilty of writing such as well). I feel spoken-down-to, as if I didn’t know the war was an abomination.
    This is a drift from the left issue, but is interestingly related.
    My feeling is that Korea and Vietnam did not generate the kind of cannonical poems that WWI and II did (Dulce et decorum, Death of Ball Turret Gunner, for example). Howver, I would add to that group Dien Cai Dau by Komunyakaa, but I think that book must be taken as a whole epic. The Vietnam Memorial poem is often singly anthologized, but really you need the weight of the whole book behind it.
    What has come of of Iraq will be sifted by time..

  • On June 26, 2008 at 2:00 pm Ben Friedlander wrote:

    And do you feel spoken-down-to by love poems, as if you didn’t know that love was really groovy? Let’s face it, there’s an awful lot of hectoring in poetry, and what we endure is more a mark of what’s endurable as life than what’s endurable as poetry.

  • On June 26, 2008 at 4:00 pm Brian Salchert wrote:

    Mr. Share,
    Had only seen Yusef Komunyakaa’s name until today.
    Your links changed that. After reading his response piece
    and the piece about him, I read five of his poems.
    Am already unsure of its title, but I think it is:
    “You Never Know”: it was the fifth one. Chose it because
    I had written a poem with a similar title. I want to say
    something about it, but am having trouble organizing
    my thoughts. Quickly: he is in it, but it seems like a
    video of the other, the killed human, and of him and
    his moments with that human. The hard facts of those
    moments are presented, but what is most evident are
    his emotional states. Komunyakaa is a man who cares.
    Thank you.

  • On June 27, 2008 at 1:17 am Jilly wrote:

    Lucia — re Vietnam poetry check out Bruce Weigl.

  • On June 27, 2008 at 10:07 am Justin Evans wrote:

    “I hope poets with more of the historical sweep on this subject than I have will comment.”
    1. To mirror in some way Michael Robbins, Democrat & Republican, historically, have very little to do with liberal or conservative. If you look back even 60 years into American Politics, There were liberal and conservative wings within each of those two parties and it isn’t as simple as saying that liberal Republicans were closely alligned with Conservative Democrats.
    2. If you go purely from a sense of what has happened since, there has been a mutation of both parties into animals which their founders would not be able to recognize. It’s all come down to what are we going to spend our money on, abortion, and national defense. Those are the holy trinity of American Politics and the only thing left for people to gauge their affiliation. Remember that FDR, Wilson, and Johnson were all Democrat and were all war presidents. People today, who aslo lack the ‘historical sweep’ tend to think the only people capable of running a war, good or bad, are Republicans. Not so. This perception also colors the idea that poets are liberal or conservative based upon these three facets of American Politics.
    3. Looking from a historic POV, one shaped in the last 30 years, Republicans have shut the door on those poets who might agree with them by taking the stance that art is not a function of the state. It isn’t that every Democrat believes everything Jasper Johns or Robert Maplethorpe does/did is/was art, only that the new Republican party has decided to excuse themselves from the table where art is discussed. Is it any wonder that poets and other artists pretend that Republicans don’t exist?

  • On June 27, 2008 at 11:26 am Jilly wrote:

    Libertarians generally don’t think the Federal Govt should have anything to do with art (NEA) either because:
    a.) not a function of the Federal Govt as defined by the Constitution
    b.) makes the Fed Gov’t “go there” with regards to culture wars — Piss Christ etc — & politicizes culture
    c.) private orgs/non-profits generally do a better job at things they are expert at (rather than the Federal Govt, who sucks a lot of the time)
    Also, one could argue that the NEA influences the arts & recipients & academia too much (favors some culture over others etc), inhibits the growth of alternatives, etc but I haven’t thought too much about that.
    Didn’t some NEA programs for some arts (dance maybe?) get cut like 10 years ago? It would be interesting to see how those genres have responded.
    I would apply for an NEA grant next time because my tax dollars have been funding it for 33 years. But do think the federal government should be involved in the arts? Nope. State government, local government, private orgs and non-profits, yes.
    (Personally, Justin, I find little difference between Obama and McCain. They seem like 2 sides of the same coin to me.)

  • On June 27, 2008 at 11:53 am Travis Nichols wrote:

    Is this a pro-war poem?

  • On June 27, 2008 at 12:54 pm Lucia wrote:

    It heartens me that this post turned interesting and that new voices did chime in. I can’t believe I missed Eleanor Wilnor’s essay.and will go back to it and other ciitations here. I thank the people who made them.
    And how wonderful that someone got turned on to Komunyakaa.
    Yes, Wiegl, and there’s Doug Anderson’s The Moon Reflected Fire and many other poets’ work based on their service (or not) in Vietnam. But do we have a canonical poem about that war? Or has the whole idea of a canonical poem evaporated? Since most poets of the WWII generation served, or served out their CO status, there was more firsthand experience to be incorporated, which resulted in more WWII poems, hence more canonical work. I think.
    I also think I mistyped about love and war, love being the more common theme. Ben’s comment on the grooviness of love is making me think: why don’t I feel hectored? Maybe it’s because I’m at heart a misenthrope and need to be hectored.
    But I have drifted from my initial inquiry…

  • On June 27, 2008 at 2:17 pm Steve Tills wrote:

    Sheryl wrote:
    “Hi Lucia,
    Thanks for the interesting post. Poets are often considered liberal, and the definitions of what liberal means are endless. Yet, I’ve known a few conservative ones who say they are liberal and vise-versa. My favorite conservative-liberal insists the economy is fine and is currently homeless. I appreciate thoughtful questions that ask us to think rather than chest-beating statements that tell us what we must think.”
    ——————
    I agree that the vast majority of poets, Today, are “liberal,” that term designating essentially sociopolitical orientation, sensibility, affinities. Some of these “liberal” poets are, at the same time, among the most “conservative” of practitioners, too… AND some of the most conservative practitioners are some of the most radically open-minded and “compassionate” and liberal
    sociopolitical thinkers and citizens of our times.
    Well, don’t we all know persons, including dear family members, who are sociopolitical conservatives (take the right-wing side on most “values” issues and economic issues, generally and even strictly vote Republican, subscribe to traditional religious beliefs, etc.) but treat almost all others in their personal lives, including sometimes even strangers on the highway or the street in mortal emergencies, with deep and generous compassion and generosity, also?
    It’s very interesting to me, and always has been, that so many very “conservative” practitioners of “poetry” are often unequivocally “liberal” and even “progressive” in their thinking and in their daily and personal and public lives. And, at the same time, there are more than a few radically experimental poetry practitioners whose views toward humanity suffer from outrageously hypocritical elitism, arrogance, and indifference. (Ummm, more than a few who truly care only about those who are equally well-advantaged, well-educated, well-“cultured,” and the like.)
    Back to the question, why are poets aligned to the left (and Yes, I agree that most, Today, ARE):
    Perhaps because most poets, Today, are highly educated and, one way or another, largely learned about the world through university attendance, and the universities are, for the most part, bastions of Liberal mindsets. Also, “poetry” has almost zero relevance or sway with most folks in our culture, so especially the economic conservatives rarely acquaint themselves with it or with poets, themselves, who are rarely materialistic. In other words, I think that the answer is mostly, ummm, demographic, or geographic, whathaveyou. I think that both “poetry” (whether avant-garde or more conservative poetry) and “poets” (again, whether avant-garde or more conservative in their practice) largely get located in the universities and in urban centers where sociopolitical “liberalism” is the dominant flavor.
    And how is it that Pound and Eliot, in their eras two of the most radically experimental of practioners and yet two of the most extravagantly conservative of sociopolitical species, had so much obvious intellect and intelligence and yet such pathetic indifference to the unenfranchised? Or that Soros and Buffett, two economic titans of these times, seem so remarkably strong and “liberal” in the sociopolitical and moral sense but don’t (likely) read a whit of avant-garde poetry (OR appear to have NEEDED TO in order to have developed their deep and courageous integrity and morality)? Hmmm, it’s interesting how various and complex people are…

  • On June 27, 2008 at 9:33 pm Doodle wrote:

    I’m not sure I understand the necessary connection between poetry (avant or other) and integrity/morality. Poets may be the unacknowledged legislators of the world, but really they’re no better than anybody else. Are they supposed to be?

  • On June 27, 2008 at 10:34 pm Annie FInch wrote:

    Ben, maybe the reason we don’t feel hectored by love poems is because we can do something about how we love. War is so much less in our control that there is a fine line between raising consciousness and inciting great frustration.
    Odd coincidence: in the middle of this thread, out of the blue I received an email from one of a pair of soldiers I talked with in an airport on their way home from Afghanistan in 2007. After hearing about their experiences there, I promised to post something for them on the blog at my homepage, which I did. In his email yesterday (the only one I’ve gotten from him), Marshall wrote, in part,
    “You seemed to me as being objective. Please write a poem about the soldiers that have seen too much. Those of us that will be scarred for life. there are images we can’t get rid of, but we did what was morally right. There are those that know we can make a difference if the politicians let us. The Democrats don’t care how many more of my friends die, they only want to take control of congress.
    You want to know about Bureaucracy, I’ve volunteered to go back to Iraq and Afghanistan and they wont let me go.
    Just don’t mention my name.
    Marshall”
    I am probably going to try to write the poem for him; I am curious how it will come out. It’s a scary assignment, for all the obvious reasons and also because of his political subtext (I am a third-generation pacifist, as I told him during our talk though he seems to have forgotten it). I’m curious what thoughts you’d have, Lucia and others, about what to avoid and what to aim for in a contemporary poem about this subject. Advice welcome, not that I will necessarily take it of course.

  • On June 27, 2008 at 10:44 pm Don Share wrote:

    “One of the problems with political poetry is that like all speech, it exists at the mercy of time, history, and other people. But that doesn’t mean poetry itself is passive… And as a maker of poems, a poet is always engaged in battle, though the opponents may be unclear, the stakes unknowable, and the victories and defeats felt far away, in different domains, by people other than himself.”
    Excerpt from David Orr’s essay, “The Politics of Poetry,” in the July/August issue of Poetry.

  • On June 28, 2008 at 11:19 am Kent Johnson wrote:

    Reading through, surprised that no one has mentioned Philip Metres’s groundbreaking study of war poetry, released last year, Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Home Front since 1941
    http://www.amazon.com/Behind-Lines-Resistance-American-Contemp/dp/0877459983
    Metres’s blog, which carries the book’s title, is one of the best sources on the web for the intersections of poetry and peace activism.
    Kent

  • On June 28, 2008 at 12:00 pm Lucia wrote:

    Misspelled misanthrope. Nope, Annie, yer writing yer own poem.

  • On June 28, 2008 at 1:54 pm Ben Friedlander wrote:

    Annie, you’re probably right, about love and control (vis-a-vis war, although a lot of love poems are about losing control). On the other hand, I still think we’re too quick, we poets, to treat war (and politics more generally) as a special kind of subject matter, raising special kinds of problems. There may be an element of truth in that, but I’m inclined to say, in rejoinder, that a poet who couldn’t write well about war is not likely much of a love poet either (and vice versa).
    Just to be, you know, polemical!

  • On June 28, 2008 at 3:10 pm Steve Tills wrote:

    doodle wrote:
    “I’m not sure I understand the necessary connection between poetry (avant or other) and integrity/morality. Poets may be the unacknowledged legislators of the world, but really they’re no better than anybody else. Are they supposed to be?”
    ———————————–
    I’m not sure what I or others would DO to prove precisely a “necessary connection between poetry (avant or other) and integrity/morality,” but most every poet I have ever met, OR read, has essentially impressed me as being exceptionally moral (in the sense of striving to view and treat others compassionately and fairly). And most all have proven themselves, to me, anyways, to demonstrate particular integrity (in the sense of maintaining grace and courage and honor in the face of enormous pressures from societies and governments and mores that would have them conform against their own highest instincts and spirits).
    Are they supposed to be “superior” morally? Or are they supposed to be “better than anybody else?” Taking these as separate questions, to the first, it would be damn nice if they were by definition more moral, and to be honest, I believe they are, generally, but of course how would one define “more moral” and is that in fact a good thing, or would it be better if they were more immoral, thus aiding the species by ever directing it to new options for variating LIFE and releasing humanity from out-molded cultural habits… (Ummm, no, I don’t thing I would want to make an argument to support that…)
    Are they in fact “no better than anybody else?” Well, surely just pretending that that (thinking they’re “better than” others) is the case would make them fools, but Yeah, actually they ARE, in my opinion, supposed to be at least a little better than others. Otherwise, nothing in what they actually do can ever be trusted to move the species to more nourishing and life-enabling cultural mores or to more caring socio-political practices. Yeah, something about Shakespeare IS more moral, though, don’t you think? We get “right” from “wrong” and “good” versus “evil” and (perhaps more USEFULLY) Tragic (Pride, Arrogance, and the like which cause suffering) versus “Healthy,” from his plays, and we should come to expect at least some degree of greater depth and Understanding from our poets, I think. And I believe that we do, or that by definition such “depth” and “Understanding” are precisely what we read the stuff for in the first place. “Pleasure,” too, Yeah, especially in the Wit and the Humour and the Satire and the gutsy Irreverence, almost always poking gentle fun at a given culture’s or personality’s petulance or pride or arrogance or all the kinds of things that are, really, kind of “immoral” (because they essentially alienate others and impose greedy selfishness on others).
    Yeah, I think that they are supposed to be “better than others,” at least a little bit AND I believe they are foolish if they too deliriously pretend to themselves that they ARE better than others when they forget that ALL “others,” including all living things, are equally deserving of dignity and care and patience and empathy and the like (and should be treated according to the old but never crazy “golden rule,” which, when you think about it, nourishes a balance and harmony between all living things and all species).
    But of course maybe by the term “necessary connection,” you are questioning any notion that Poetry should perform some kind of moral function, that “the object” of Poetry should be to in any way drive, steer, or commandeer “Morality,” and that Poetry’s function is merely to “entertain,” NOT to “instruct,” that it provides aesthetic pleasure, and that that should be quite enough. Or that it should not advance any given language and make that language more useful in terms of expanding the range of human experience and consciousness and perception, things that could surely be regarded as “moral” functions and require very definite integrity (just as “Science” requires rigor). Maybe you are asking another question with the term “necessary connection,” and you’re darn well smart to ask it. I’m not sure that I could prove any necessary connections, but I know that you’re right to ask me to try. I don’t think that I have any great insights, and lord knows that I am pretty feebly “educated” compared to most, but one thing I CAN do is suggest that my whole obsession here does/must apparently rise from a small but festering discontent that I have felt over the years and especially more recently regarding questions of “Substance” and “Form.” And although my Reading is painfully Inferior, I still DO trust that there is some good reason for this concern to keep coming back to me. Unless I am totally and quite simply OFF MY ROCKER, or simply ill-informed and miserably ill-equipped, I think there must be something THERE — in other words, that more, or “different” or NEW, integrity and morality needs to be developed with future poetries, and much less advancement of “perceptual means” (formal methods and formal innovations) should be the aim. (Of course, perhaps it is precisely through more advanced “perceptual means” that more Life-generating and supporting Substance and integrity and morality would become actualized… But I guess I perceive “a split” between Substance and Form, and the driving force behind that split is Economic Competition. Poets are driven to compete in the Marketplace, essentially the marketplace of jobs in academia, and their survival/success depends on the degree to which they create new forms and market same. Emphasis on such arcane things as “morality,” “truth,” “integrity” MAY, necessarily, take a sad hiatus as the trend of Poetry serving economic competition means goes through this kind of cycle. I dunno…)

  • On June 28, 2008 at 5:40 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    I don’t agree with Harold Bloom very often, but he’s absolutely, unarguably correct on this one:
    “The Iliad teaches the surpassing glory of armed victory, while Dante rejoices in the eternal torments he visits upon his very personal enemies. Tolstoy’s private version of Christianity throws aside nearly everything that anyone among us retains, and Dostoevsky preaches anti-Semitism, obscurantism, and the necessity of human bondage. Shakespeare’s politics, insofar as we can pin them down, do not appear to be very different from those of his Coriolanus, and Milton’s ideas of free speech and free press do not preclude the imposition of all manner of societal restraints. Spenser rejoices in the massacre of Irish rebels, while the egomania of Wordsworth exalts his own poetic mind over any other source of splendor.
    “The West’s greatest writers are subversive of all values, both ours and their own. Scholars who urge us to find the source of our morality and our politics in Plato, or in Isaiah, are out of touch with the social reality in which we live. If we read the Western Canon in order to form our social, political, or personal moral values, I firmly believe we will become monsters of selfishness and exploitation.”
    I know I’m a broken record, but: it’s just a liberal fetish that leads us to expect models of virtue from our poets. For most of history, writing poetry was available only to those who instantiated values liberalism finds a priori abhorrent. But liberalism’s a phase.

  • On June 29, 2008 at 12:36 am Annie Finch wrote:

    Very interesting polemic there, Ben. Millay comes immediately to mind as a well-known counterexample: she wrote indisputably wonderfully about love, though not war. Yet I see the point. Imagine if people had the kinds of discussions about the value and possibilities and pitfalls of love poetry that they routinely have about political poetry. Then again, maybe they should!
    Lucia, you’d think all these people with all these opinions on this blog would be dying to sound off with advice…though the opinion that really matters is Marshall’s. I am going to find out a lot from him, forget about it for a while and then write the poem, as I alwsys do with an invited or commissioned piece.

  • On June 29, 2008 at 7:33 am Don Share wrote:

    I want to second the recommendation of Philip Metres’s book and blog. I ought to have mentioned them and also this:
    Poetry, Wartime, and Unwieldy Metaphors
    Jorie Graham, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Gary Snyder participate in a panel.
    http://www.poetryfoundation.org/dispatches/dispatches.reading.html?id=179007

  • On June 29, 2008 at 9:56 am Emily Warn wrote:

    Also, Philip Metres pulled toegher for us an annotated list of “documentary” poems–“Such poetry arises from the idea that poetry is not a museum-object to be observed from afar, but a dynamic medium that informs and is informed by the history of the moment.”
    Annie, You might want to read this essay “When Yellow Ribbons and Flag-Waving Aren’t Enough”: An ex-soldier’s take on recent war poetry.” One of the books we gave him was Kent Johnson’s Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz. Fick read the handful of contemporary poetry books on war on his way to train soldiers in Afghanistan. (But don’t jump to conclusions about what type of training that was. Read the link in his article to another one of his articles in the Washington Post.
    Emily

  • On June 29, 2008 at 10:03 am Rich Villar wrote:

    Hey, Annie. I prefer to trust your particular brand of kung fu and refrain from opening my big mouth. (I do that enough.) I always enjoy reading what you have to say, though. Happy love and war poetry…

  • On June 29, 2008 at 12:12 pm Jilly wrote:

    I would think, Annie, that you would approach the poem how you would approach any other poem? I’m not sure why you’d approach that subject in a different way? If your pacifism is putting the breaks on, because of the subject, why not try a persona poem?

  • On June 29, 2008 at 2:25 pm Lucia wrote:

    Soon I’ll sign off, but I will say that so far I’ve read the Wilner essay and some the responses to it–about our government’s sending writers to Iraq to teach writing workshops. It was dismaying to read a letter of support that came from a formalist poet–because thiat feeds the (bogus) notion that formalists coalesce (thank you, Doug) on the right..
    I was also interested in the Wilner because of my own conflicted emotions. That is, I agreed with the critics of the program like Wilner and Komunyakaa, but I know that if I’d been asked to go (I can’t go, I couldn’t do that kind of travel) I could not resist the adventure. I’d be dying to go precisely because, in reality, I couldn’t go..Self-interest above principle, though.

  • On June 29, 2008 at 5:02 pm unreliable narrator wrote:

    Poor Ms. Finch! What an assignment…if, however, you wind up enjoying it, perhaps you’d consider tackling another such mission? You certainly have the thoughtfulness, taste, and sense of humor required….

  • On June 29, 2008 at 9:24 pm Steve Tills wrote:

    Michael Robbins wrote:
    I don’t agree with Harold Bloom very often, but he’s absolutely, unarguably correct on this one:
    “The Iliad teaches the surpassing glory of armed victory, while Dante rejoices in the eternal torments he visits upon his very personal enemies. Tolstoy’s private version of Christianity throws aside nearly everything that anyone among us retains, and Dostoevsky preaches anti-Semitism, obscurantism, and the necessity of human bondage. Shakespeare’s politics, insofar as we can pin them down, do not appear to be very different from those of his Coriolanus, and Milton’s ideas of free speech and free press do not preclude the imposition of all manner of societal restraints. Spenser rejoices in the massacre of Irish rebels, while the egomania of Wordsworth exalts his own poetic mind over any other source of splendor.
    “The West’s greatest writers are subversive of all values, both ours and their own. Scholars who urge us to find the source of our morality and our politics in Plato, or in Isaiah, are out of touch with the social reality in which we live. If we read the Western Canon in order to form our social, political, or personal moral values, I firmly believe we will become monsters of selfishness and exploitation.”
    I know I’m a broken record, but: it’s just a liberal fetish that leads us to expect models of virtue from our poets. For most of history, writing poetry was available only to those who instantiated values liberalism finds a priori abhorrent. But liberalism’s a phase.”
    ————————————-
    Isn’t Bloom being just a little bit “selective” there? For example, is the “surpassing glory of armed victory” ALL that the Iliad teaches?
    Now, when Bloom writes, “If we read the Western Canon in order to form our social, political, or personal moral values, I firmly believe we will become monsters of selfishness and exploitation,”
    doesn’t he leave out himself? He is, himself, for all intents and purposes, a particularly “moral” man by any reasonably rational scheme of things, and he’s one of the 20th century’s most articulate and, to my mind, intelligent literary critics (whether predictably pompous, pedantic, and “old-fashioned” or not). That is, he has studied, if not indeed absorbed much of the entire canon and he’s hardly what anybody would call a sociopath, right?
    Okay, yes-sirree, he would have us gain “aesthetic value” from Literature/Poetry, and we should not spend our time reading it to rationalize social, political, economic agendas. Shakespeare, for instance, we should not be “reducing him to the ‘social energies’ of the English Renaissance” (_The Western Canon_, 3), but how does that mean, if we read Shakespeare, we won’t in fact advance our understanding of those social energies, and god knows all kinds of others, much more readily than we will reading religious books authored by a James Dobson or the polemical texts of a Phyllis Schlafly (two folks, perhaps just strawmen and strawwomyn, here)? Or even Bloom’s own eminently authoritative and ingenious criticism, which does in the end, after all, advance his own literary values and thus moralizes without necessarily deepening our understanding of what it means to be moral or live a moral life?
    Funny, just like Bloom, most avant-garde (and others, sorry) poets cite “aesthetic value” as the prime value of their poetries and the primary thing that we should seek in reading them, but most of these same poets, like Bloom of his generation, are also among the most moral citizens in our society and in all other cultures. Okay, maybe they were inclined to become exceptionally moral before they began reading and practicing poetry. I’m not sure how to define “virtue” (or Moral) at any given minute, but I myself am inclined expect models of virtue in the poets I know and have known and I expect to express my disappointment in them if/when they ever flagrantly abuse those expectations.
    And THAT prudish sounding stance may (perhaps quite rightly) turn off Both Harold Bloom AND a considerable number of poet friends who might (quite rightly) conclude that I just “don’t get it,” that I was at least on the right track back when I was myself quite irreverent and had some small but real ambitions to perhaps bring into the world some new aesthetic value. TODAY, I have far fewer such ambitions, almost zero delusions that I ever could, and a strange new determination to at least pursue something “deeper,” whatever that might be. I’ll say one thing — it’s something more than mere “aesthetic value,” but I have to pursue it anyhow, regardless that Both Bloom and many poets I admire and revere would have no interest in it. I’ll have to take my lumps.
    And maybe not pursue much of anything anymore. In that sense, I’m definitely WITH doodle, who pointed out that poets are NOT better than anybody else. And there’s a good deal of truth to that. Which is quite sad, for me. I have always held them in such high esteem, or wanted to, anyway. Shoot, I dunno what I think anymore…

  • On June 30, 2008 at 12:46 am Michael Robbins wrote:

    Steve, I appreciate your taking the time to respond; but I don’t think you’ve followed your arguments & questions through to their logical conclusions.
    1. Maybe Bloom’s being selective, but so what?: he’s not saying that armed victory is all that The Iliad teaches; but that’s one of the things it teaches, right? It doesn’t matter if it also teaches values we would agree with: if Homeric values include the glory of armed combat, then we will agree that it upholds values we would not wish to emulate. Maybe it includes others, too; that’s not the point. The question is whether we should look to literature for moral or political guidance; Bloom argues that if we do, we’re likely to end up valorizing warfare.
    2. It’s irrelevant that Bloom is a “moral man” (if he is, which I doubt); he’s already specifically said that he doesn’t read in order to form his values. So if he is a moral man, he didn’t become one because he formed his personal, social, or political values through his reading. The point isn’t what kind of person he is, but what kind of person someone who took moral lessons from literature would be. His whole point is that he doesn’t do that.
    3. The historical avant-garde was programatically opposed to the very concept of the “aesthetic,” much less to aesthetic value, & today’s soi-disant avant-gardists are often just as suspicious of the concept. Many of them subscribe (as do I) to something like Bourdieu’s claim that “the aesthetic” is a mystification of cultural capital.

  • On June 30, 2008 at 11:11 am Sheryl wrote:

    Poetry is not always logical.

  • On June 30, 2008 at 11:36 am Lydia Olidea wrote:

    Just a few fragmentary thoughts.
    Is war really harder to control than love? I don’t say this as a romantic, particularly. But hypothetically at least, the American public could vote only to elect candidates who would cease funding the current war immediately. Unlikely, but practicable, in the technical sense. Whereas love can’t be compelled, right? (Sub-debate: The Iliad is less about war, which is its setting, than it is about fate — the element which can’t be compelled).
    Is this ongoing measure of Vietnam poetry a case of “assuming the conclusion,” as the logicians say? It seems like the poems being looked for are poems are a priori poems that resemble Jarrell or “Dulce et Decorum Est” or etc but just happen to be about Vietnam. But maybe by this time and these conditions “war poetry” just looks really different. This seems almost predictable, though it would be hard to predict in advance what it would look like. Two great Vietnam war poems that haven’t been mentioned, I don’t think: “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” and Michael Palmer’s “Sun.” (Sub-debate: what if some of the best “Vietnam war poetry” or “Gulf war poetry” or “War on terror poetry” decided to prosecute its account at the level of form or mode rather than content? Is one allowed to read for that? Or by “war poetry” do we just mean a quite narrow slice of a particular kind of descriptive mode combined with appropriate emotional tenor?)
    I have a corollary to Lucia’s initial curiosity. Given that we spend less time in thrall to love or war — by far — than in thrall to economy, “why is there not much good poetry written about” economics, right or left, Democrat or Republican?

  • On June 30, 2008 at 12:11 pm Annie Finch wrote:

    Thanks for the links and ideas–all very useful! Thanks Lucia for a good discussion, and thanks Harriet.

  • On June 30, 2008 at 12:39 pm SherylLuna wrote:

    I should have finished my coffee before posting .There isn’t anything bad in poetry trying to help people live as Wallace Stevens said. My last comment was lame as in “lame duck”.
    Mr. Bloom was correct about our anxiety as poets over those poets that come before us and most of us have varying and hopefully continually changing aesthetics. I think what kind of person one is in general matters. Of course there are poets who are not good, as all of us as human beings are flawed and wounded in our behavior and limited perceptions. But yes, the striving to be good and to read inspiring verse at an emotional or even spirtual level still exists. Poetry can be about whatever we want it to be about as individuals.
    Some people still read for enjoyment, for a sense of peace and yes, some bit of truth or some understanding of “experience” since we are all individuals with our own truths and our own experiences. Yes, such things may be narrow, but they are ultimately human. Others read for an intellectual thrill. And some walk with an air of superiority and some of us are simply crazy. This polarizing attitude left/right, innovative/ (non-innovative?) is prevelant online. I would some days just like to sit down and have a drink with poets who seem to be on the “other” side. Leftist politics seem to be a blurr, a lure to self-promotion and one-up-manship, but this can also occur on the right. There is nothing wrong with trying to be good though we fail, fail and fail again.
    Argumentation takes time and resources. The left is like a human being, fraught with contradictions and complexities. There is no single path. It’s great we are on this path to learning and growing as indiviudals.
    Life is in many ways like a batte or a race. It is filled with passion, stupididy, mistakes, arrogance, selfishness, death, birth and so much more than mere one-up-manship.
    We are all guity of stupidity and being human. None of us is correct in our estimations of what is what. Most of us are happy to read a poem that delights us in some way.
    Yes, someone once told me to remember the pleasure we get from writing and reading. There’s nothing wrong with human beings trying to help oneanother, and the heart is not such a bad thing.

  • On July 1, 2008 at 1:33 am Steve Tills wrote:

    Michael, I suspect that I’ve boo-booed there:
    You wrote:
    “3. The historical avant-garde was programatically opposed to the very concept of the “aesthetic,” much less to aesthetic value, & today’s soi-disant avant-gardists are often just as suspicious of the concept. Many of them subscribe (as do I) to something like Bourdieu’s claim that “the aesthetic” is a mystification of cultural capital.”
    I meant to be coupling avant-garde poets/poetry with “the aesthetic APPROACH,” not “aesthetic value” (Bloom’s term). Possibly my understanding of this aesthetic approach is NOT what you are referring to as “the ‘aesthetic,'” also, yes? I mean, as I understand it, the avant-garde pomers that I know definitely take an “aesthetic approach”; that is, they want their language (units, including even their punctuation marks) to SING, not necessarily “mean.” They want more to entertain than to instruct. They want to “explore” and “investigate” everything about their “means” and medium. They want opacity, not so much “transparency.” They want investigations into the nature of of things like transparency, itself, whether it’s real or an illusion, etcetera, etcetera.
    Hey, shoot, listen, Michael, I’ve read some of your very, very good poetry, and recommend same. I believe we come from the same, errr, “traditions,” but my terminology is made up as I go along, so I have probably confused it with terminology that the Blooms and Bourdieus use in stricter, established senses with which I am only clumsily and occasionally acquainted. Bloom, for example, I strum through his _Western Canon_ some nights in January and February when it’s way too cold here in western New York to drive over to the park where they have those big street lights and I can check my latest “Answer” to my golf swing at 2 a.m. (seriously), but other than that, I just like his erudition and pick up a theme like Shakespeare teaches Freud his theories of personality (or something to that effect I think he, Bloom, argues) and I like some of that stuff, but not all of it sticks.
    Again, what I was really trying to get into, or out of my muddle, is that there seems a bit TOO MUCH experimentation with form (so as to establish a True New School) and PeRhAPs not enough attention to Content (because after all it’s Form, one’s aesthetic technique and all and the Energy of one’s words, that gets ya in the Lit History Books), and I myself would like to see EVEN more of stuff that has considerably less ambition and a tad more of the old-fashioned interests in the Insights and Depths that truly move society and humans further along in their evolutionary ascendency (ummm, yeah, that assumes that evolution means we’re always getting “better,” developing our faculties more fully and more completely).
    Hey, I’m the original broken record, myself, and Yes, I do need to think things through more, but it’s golf season and the first one in 5 years whence I’ve been able to afford to play regularly again (and at my age, it’s my last Hurrah), plus I’ve been terribly scattered the past couple of years, so I don’t finish a lot of things that I start, AND nyseg turned off our Gas because we got behind on our bills, so we’ve been taking baths from water we heat on the stove (electric) and I myself have been doing cold showers, but I can’t use that as excuse tomorrow, because we paid the bill, finally, and we’ll have heat and hot water again tomorrow evening for the first time in 6 or 8 weeks.
    Cheers, Comrade! :)

  • On July 1, 2008 at 11:49 am Michael Robbins wrote:

    Hey, Steve — You should see me during March Madness. &, yeah, yr points are well taken. I think I tend to take these comment streams a little too seriously. Better to think of them as an informal conversation, not subject to the strictures of a published debate or something. I’m very sorry to hear about yr heating situation & glad it didn’t happen in winter.
    As for my poetry — many thanks if you’ve actually read it, but whenever anyone tells me they like my stuff I worry they’ve confused me (understandably) with Michael Robins (one b), my colleague at Columbia College, whose book The Next Settlement came out last year. I’ve published a lot of poems in journals, though, so if you saw some of them, thanks for the compliment. My work reading slush at Chicago Review taught me just how many competent, talented but ultimately unexceptional poets there are out there — my private fear (I suspect many poets have it) is that I’m one of them.

  • On July 2, 2008 at 5:09 pm Travis Nichols wrote:

    Though this thread has strayed fruitfully from Lucia’s original question–why are poets aligned with the left–it remains a great and largely unanswered question.
    A thought that arose today was that there aren’t many poets actively aligned with the right because to ensure the goals of the right are met, a poet need only make sure his or her audience is not paying attention to the political machinations of this country.
    By distracting and otherwise occupying the attention of readers, poets give their tacit consent to the current right-led wars. Current propaganda (from the right and left) has none of the obviousness a historical perspective lends.
    Of course, what exactly the “political machinations” are, as well as what exactly constitutes “distraction” are complicated questions. But they are essential.

  • On July 2, 2008 at 5:23 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    May I say, one more time, that poets aren’t aligned with the left?? I’m having a hard time understanding this thread. No one’s adduced a shred of evidence for the proposition that poets tend leftward at the moment, or once did so, or shall do so. They just don’t. You have to choose an anecdotally selected sample population to make the proposition even remotely credible. Not coincidentally, the sorts of poets posters on boards like Harriet are likely to know & read are soft liberals. (Not, I tire of pointing out, leftists.) This proves nothing about American poets considered as a general population.

  • On July 2, 2008 at 11:39 pm Lucia wrote:

    Whoa, Travis, I think it may be overstating the case (or wishful thinking) to claim that poetry could ever brew up enough steam to constitute a distraction.

  • On July 3, 2008 at 12:51 am Matt wrote:

    Michael, if you were to take a survey of 100 published poets, simply asking “Are you voting for McCain or Obama?”, do you really think the result would be anything less than 95% Obama?
    Of all the poets you know personally, do you think there’s a single one voting for McCain?

  • On July 3, 2008 at 7:13 am Henry Gould wrote:

    Michael,
    Maybe you’ve had to repeat your assertion because the terms of discourse being used in this discussion are defined differently than you wish or imagine. I think Lucia’s definition of “left” in this case = “Blue State Democrat”. Now this may not accord with a true-blue socialist or social democratic or French Revolutionary definition of this term; but it’s the one Lucia’s using.
    On that basis, I think a fairly strong argument can be made that poets and “visible” poetry culture in the contemporary USA are quite markedly “left”. Add up the blogs; the literary journals; the congruence of Democratic Party policy positions and groups such as “Poets Against the War” etc. etc., and you have a fair amount of supporting evidence. Of course, to really prove this you’d have to undertake some kind of statistical study.
    Of course there is a much larger field of “poets and poetry” which we might call amateur or folk-art poetry – the kind of poetry which does not appear in established literary journals, newspapers, or commentary – and this larger field would be harder to identify with the left or right (as we are defining those terms here). There are also a fair number of “professional” poets who are on the political “right” – but I think they are outnumbered.
    The statistically smallest group is made up of those poets whose only working approach to political oratory is ironic, reflective or critical. For this group, poetry and preaching-to-the-choir stand at opposite poles of public discourse.

  • On July 3, 2008 at 9:48 am Doodle wrote:

    What Henry and Matt make clear is that voting for Obama makes you a leftist!
    I can see why Michael would dispute this. I know I would.

  • On July 3, 2008 at 10:40 am Henry Gould wrote:

    Doodle, I suggest you start a blog – or perhaps a whole constellation of blogs – in order to properly analyze and dissect that Great Question – indeed perhaps the Greatest Question of the 19th and 20th centuries – “What is Left?” Best of luck in your endeavor!

  • On July 3, 2008 at 11:55 am Travis Nichols wrote:

    Not to quibble (because that surely isn’t what blog comments are for!), but I put forth my thoughts on why more poets aren’t actively aligned with the right, not on why they are aligned with the left. I tend to think they’re mostly neither, which of course does not imply neutrality.

  • On July 3, 2008 at 11:58 am Michael Robbins wrote:

    So, the thesis is that poets tend leftward, where “left” is defined as supporting the presidential candidate of one of the two major business parties — a man who will not rule out nuclear retaliation against Iran; who pledges to continue, in defiance of world opinion, U.S. support for Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank & Gaza; who wants to expand the role of religious institutions in government; &c.
    What Noam Chomsky has to say about Obama is relevant to the confusion this thread is perpetuating (which is relevant to the confusion media discussion of presidential politics perpetuates): “Take Barack Obama, for example. In this morning’s New York Times, a front-page story reports his foreign policy stance, based on an exclusive interview. It opens by reporting that if elected he would offer ‘a possible promise not to seek “regime change”‘ if Iran stopped ‘acting irresponsibly’ in Iraq, stopped supporting ‘terrorist activities,’ and cooperated with the US on ‘nuclear issues.’ Not a promise, just a possible promise in reward for ‘good behavior.’ The threat of force is, of course, a serious violation of the UN Charter, but that seems not to be a matter of concern. The idea that Iran is ‘acting irresponsibly’ in Iraq can indeed be raised: on the assumption that we own the world, so that if we invade and occupy another country, any interference with our actions is ‘irresponsible.’ . . . [H]ow astonishing his statements are, except, once again, on the assumption that we own the world.”
    So we can reformulate the thesis this way: Why are poets aligned with a set of assumptions about the world such that their support for a political figure who takes it as obvious that the United States should continue to act as if international law is irrelevant, bending other nations to its will by force if necessary, is seen as evidence of their occupying the left-liberal end of the political spectrum.

  • On July 3, 2008 at 12:41 pm Lydia Olidea wrote:

    I guess Michael’s point (aside from the fact that American poets seem to fall within the famously narrow spectrum of American party politics and not at any critical distance from it), is that the confusion of strong historical distinctions like that between “left” and “liberal” is not merely a nomenclatural divide, but an indication of the degree of political unawareness, centrist slippage, and casual sanction afflicting the group in question — no?
    (Although Henry Gould’s cheerful urgency to not think about such things seems like an excellent example of Travis Nichols’ description of a poet serving the right. So perhaps he himself is a counterexample to Lucia Perillo’s original claim?)

  • On July 3, 2008 at 1:05 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    Assumptions, assumptions… Lydia & Michael assume that if you don’t think like they do, you don’t think at all.
    It’s still possible, in the US, to be politically centrist – that is, centered, very roughly speaking, between the positions of the 2 major parties. It’s possible to be centered on certain basic political values, like democracy, government by consent; rule of law; legal protection for persons and property; and so on. I, in turn, am assuming that Lucia’s original comments on “left” and “right” presuppose this center, from which the 2 parties diverge primarily on matters of social policy.
    Michael, Lydia, and Noam Chomsky may uphold different political values and standards. That’s fine. It’s a free country. That’s what I think. This is not the same as thinking “alls’ right with the world”, which is what Lydia is accusing me of (in so many words).
    As Reginald Shepherd likes to say – peace & poetry…

  • On July 3, 2008 at 3:14 pm Steve Tills wrote:

    http://www.lapetitezine.org/Michael.Robbins.htm
    Well, I mean, for example, these lines from “Favorite zoo animal,” one of your poems, some of your poming, at lapetitezine.org. Only gotta read a coupla lines to know that I like it, your sensibilities:
    The reword, and “funnin,” of Marx; the “why’s it Arkansas oh okay that’s cool” and then the neat “surprise” at the end with “maple porn” [my emphasis]; “velcro of small things” and certifying them, yeah, neat, and of course I’ve worn velcro golf clubs for 38 years; “Management of Widow Burning” may have been “a found poem,” or it’s Indian, where I think they still “burn brides,” so the good “feminism” (now, C’MON, MICHAEL, TELL ME THAT’S NOT “SOCIAL” AND TELL ME THAT ANY ABLE-MINDED YOUNG MAN OR WOMAN READING IT DOESN’T GET AT LEAST A LITTLE TINY FLICKER OF REINFORCEMENT FOR COURAGE TO OPPOSE SEXISM AND MISOGYNY; and the neat little riff “against” Creationism, placing it in “generations,” periods, etc., and coupling it with the notion, or ANY notion, of “logic,” again, Dude, we are poking fun at and pointing out holes in ill-conceived, unworthy, devolving, dying ideologies, aren’t we (and what’s wrong with that?); and last, the hilarious, maybe my favorite of the section, “You can’t smoke in here, this is America,” I certainly shouldn’t have to explain how funny this is and fun and why it’s so. Good, neat, intelligent, thoughtful, fun, knowledgable, and wise stuff – Poming. Smiles…
    From a Michael Robbins poem I was reading:
    A specter is haunting communism.
    I think the lake reminds me of a wafer
    bottled in Arkansas & shipped
    with maple porn.

    Left Behind to certify the velcro of small things
    —antlers in our milk, the hen
    that guesses our weight—
    the hen that stamps our names on tin bands—
    Management of Widow Burning,
    or, The Cultural Logic of Late Creationism.
    Steve :)

  • On July 3, 2008 at 3:24 pm Doodle wrote:

    Some of this, let’s face it, is a little épater le bourgeois. But… yes, what Lydia said.

  • On July 3, 2008 at 6:55 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    Henry, I don’t deny that it’s possible to be centrist. & I’m pretty sure that one my main points has been that, contra Lucia’s suggestion (which I recognize was tongue-in-cheek), you don’t arrive at any particular political position by “thinking” your way to the “truth.” In fact, it’s liberalism whose adherents assume if you don’t think like they do you don’t think. I’m pretty sure insisting on a distinction between “left” & “liberal,” whose importance Lydia has nicely articulated, is simply a socio-historical matter, no more a question of “thinking like I do” than if someone had conflated fascism & communism & their error were pointed out. Luckily, I am surrounded by friends & colleagues whose political affinities range widely, including some on the (to employ another completely misused term) libertarian right. It’s liberals who have arrived at the splendor of the self-evident truth of history, & shake their heads in wonder that past artists they admire could have had such boneheaded ideas. Do I think I’m right? Sure — just like everybody else. That doesn’t prove a thing about what I think people who don’t think like I do think.
    Steve! You shame me, & I thank you. But let it be said that I never claimed to be consistent. & yes, “management of widow burning” (the working title of my manuscript) is lifted from Spivak’s work on Indian subalternity.
    Peace & poetry to all, fer shizzle,
    mr

  • On July 3, 2008 at 10:14 pm Steve Tills wrote:

    Henry,
    Re: “politically centrist,”
    If poetry is the antithesis of politics, then aren’t most very good pomers’ politics Not paraphasable,
    the “particulars” of their politics always and ever, at least Ideally, Not Reducible to any party, any subscription, and permanent locating on any outside continuum?
    If very good poets (i.e., ANYbody thinking, poming, really well in the moment) regard each and every politicizable (sorry, no time to speel coreckly just know) particular of human and earthly experience (including the “abstract” and the imaginary) special to its own Being. With CARE. With “love.” With Heart. With,
    oh fuck you Steve — yer getting AWFULly sentimental and cliche, yep.
    Seriously, though, we should not spend a lot of time categorizing our thinking, politics, etc.
    Seriously, poming should should shoulda coulda woulda be “outside of” political USE, definition…
    Seriously, now that would be divinely “liberal,” wouldn’t it? Pomers smashing politics to peaces.
    Okay, nuff sad, sed, Sudafed-head. :)
    P.S. And this is completely off subject, sorta, but anybody ever read Emerson’s great essay about
    “liberalism” and “conservatism?” It’s not (exactly) the same “liberalism” we’re talking about here. It’s more a very rational and reasonable respect for the equally indispensable human qualities, human potentials, ideals, liberalism and conservatism.

  • On July 4, 2008 at 9:37 am Henry Gould wrote:

    I pretty much agree with you, Steve. I was just trying to answer Lucia’s question. Several other commenters here were trying to question the basis of her question. That’s fine too. Happy 4th of July.

  • On July 6, 2008 at 4:21 pm Steve Tills wrote:

    Ditto, Henry!
    And Thank you and All for Great Conversation. It’s a fabulous range of topics and I think that our generation(s) will be (rightly and smartly) continuing to explore it/them for some time.
    Ciao, Steve


Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, June 23rd, 2008 by Lucia Perillo.