The Politics of Poetry
Shortly before Ohio's Democratic primary, Tom Buffenbarger, the head of the machinists' union and a supporter of Hillary Clinton, took to the stage at a Clinton rally in Youngstown to lay the wood to Barack Obama. "Give me a break!" snarled Buffenbarger, "I've got news for all the latte-drinking, Prius-driving, Birkenstock-wearing, trust fund babies crowding in to hear him speak! This guy won't last a round against the Republican attack machine." And then the union rep delivered his coup de grace: "He's a poet, not a fighter!"
Fortunately, this insult to the sacred mysteries of Poesie didn't go unanswered—within a few days, the poet John Lundberg angrily riposted at the Huffington Post, declaring that he "would be happy to step outside" with Buffenbarger to show him that poets can indeed mix it up. (Smart money is on Lundberg, as Buffenbarger appears to have lost several dozen battles to the combined forces of Little Debbie and Sara Lee.) Yet what was most interesting about the Clinton supporter's remarks wasn't their inaccuracy or intemperance, but the way in which they neatly summarized two assumptions often made about contemporary American poetry and contemporary American politics. Loosely speaking, these are:
1) That poetry is passive, swoony, and generally not in the business of "doing things."
2) That politics is active, gritty, and comparable to war.
Many objections can be made to these assumptions, but it's important to note first that poetry and politics are both matters of verbal persuasion—that is, both have strong connections to the art of rhetoric. Admittedly, poets and politicians are typically trying to persuade us of very different things, yet the two worlds have far more in common with each other than either does with, for instance, the world of Brazilian jujitsu. In light of that, one would think poets might get a little more respect from political speakers, and that political speakers might refrain from comparing their purely verbal existence to the decidedly non-verbal world of physical violence.
But they don't. Instead, the relationship between American poetry and American politics is confused and confusing, with politicians sometimes describing the highest moments in political life as "poetic" ("I have a dream"), and other times offering up poetry as a symbol of empty talk. And of course, American poets are even more conflicted. Rare is the poet who doesn't view himself as deeply invested in political life, and yet the sloppy, compromised, and frequently idiotic business of democracy—which is, for all its flaws, the way most political changes occur in this country—rarely attracts the attention of our best poets. Is this the inevitable order of things? Or are all the talkers simply talking past each other?
We might first ask: Why are they talking about each other at all? We don't spend much time wondering what poetry has to do with neuroscience or television writing or college basketball, yet these are important areas of American life that involve assertions about truth, form, morality, and the nature of culture—all subjects regularly claimed as poetry's turf. Yet the connection between poetry and politics interests us in ways that the arguably more obvious connection between poetry and linguistics does not. Why?
The ideal answer to that question would involve a painstaking analysis of the political inclinations of several hundred years' worth of English language poets, and it would take a proper scholar at least two books to outline. That answer would also be dull, so let's instead consider two quotes, one famous, one slightly less so. The first is from Shelley:
The most unfailing herald, companion, or follower of the awakening of a great people to work a beneficial change in opinion or institution, is poetry. . . . [Poets] measure the circumference and sound the depths of human nature with a comprehensive and all-penetrating spirit, and they are themselves perhaps the most sincerely astonished at its manifestations; for it is less their spirit than the spirit of the age. Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
And the second quote is from Auden:
All poets adore explosions, thunderstorms, tornadoes, conflagrations, ruins, scenes of spectacular carnage. The poetic imagination is not at all a desirable quality in a statesman. In a war or revolution, a poet may do very well as a guerrilla fighter or a spy, but it is unlikely that he will make a good regular soldier, or, in peacetime, a conscientious member of a parliamentary committee.
Although Auden is usually in the business of undercutting Shelley, it's interesting to notice the ways in which these very different statements are based upon similar assumptions. Poets, Shelley tells us, are "the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present"—in other words, they aren't just people who think of ways to write new poems, but people who imagine new ways of being and perceiving. It might at first be hard to see how Auden's wry description of "the poetic imagination" as a jumble of thunderstorms and explosions matches up with this conception. Yet Auden's gentle mockery begins from the premise that poetic thinking is essentially apocalyptic; that poetry involves a kind of totalizing vision to which everything, even the poet himself, becomes subordinate. Shelley thinks this vision is to be trusted; Auden thinks it should be resisted. But both believe that this is how poetry works.
It's also how democratic politics is sometimes thought to work, at least when we're thinking of "politics" in its more abstract incarnations. Here, for instance, is how Franklin D. Roosevelt viewed the job to which he devoted much of his life:
The Presidency is not merely an administrative office. That's the least of it. It is more than an engineering job, efficient or inefficient. It is pre-eminently a place of moral leadership. All our great presidents were leaders of thought at times when certain historic ideas in the life of the nation had to be clarified.
To say that you're personally necessary in order for "certain historic ideas in the life of the nation . . . to be clarified" is only a few hyperventilating breaths short of calling yourself "a mirror of the gigantic shadow which futurity casts upon the present." The link again is the concept of totalizing vision. And this concept—dramatic, romantic, wildly generalizing—is one that politics and poetry don't share to the same degree with activities like neuroscience (which focuses on particulars) or television writing (which tends to emphasize craft). Indeed, the only other areas of American life that have similar inclinations are probably religion and philosophy. Religion is no longer attractive for many poets for reasons that are historical and beyond the scope of this essay. Philosophizing remains a popular endeavor in the poetry world, but only so long as it's a poetic sort of philosophizing (Nietszche, Heidegger) and not complicated, logic-y stuff that involves formulations like ◊∃xφ→∃x◊φ. Since Anglo-American philosophy has been dominated by the latter sort of thinking for decades, it's no surprise most poets don't go in for it.
Which leaves politics as the most favorable non-artistic arena for a certain type of poetic sensibility. In his essay "Absolute Poetry and Absolute Politics," Michael Hamburger argues that this sensibility, which he connects with the Romantic-Symbolist tradition, "presuppose[s] a high degree of isolation or alienation from society." Hamburger believes that poets who work in this vein have "a private religion, a religio poetae irreconcilable with the exigencies of the public world," and that such writers consequently are attracted to "absolute political creeds, mistaking their monomania for a dedication akin to [the poets'] own, and seduced by promises of order." It's an interesting point, but we can be satisfied with a more modest related argument: any brand of politics—"absolute" or not—has a vision that supports and sustains it, and in which some poets may find reflections of the structure they seek in their writing. Even a responsible American citizen-poet has a flicker of the old Romantic-Symbolist fire in his belly, and this may cause him to feel a connection to contemporary politics that is often no less intense than Pound's affection for Il Duce. When Jorie Graham takes on global warming, that's more or less what's going on.
That connection is both enhanced and complicated by the persistence of the lyric as contemporary poetry's dominant mode. The modern lyric may be fractured, tweaked, or warped, but essentially it remains a self-enclosed world created by a singular voice (which isn't always the same thing as a single subject called "I"). That voice is often speaking to itself in meditative solitude, yet even as the lyric insists on privacy, the act of insisting necessarily implies that there's someone to be insisted to. This puts the lyric in a potentially awkward position relative to the larger political world. As W.R. Johnson writes:
The absence of a real audience and the failure of performance engender an anxiety, a kind of bad conscience, a sense of the poet's irrelevance, impotence and unreality—a frustration of function that the printed page . . . can only intensify.
For American poets, the central dilemma of the modern lyric is remarkably similar to the dilemma that's often described as central to America itself: the question of individualism. As Tocqueville tells us, "thus not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants, and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone, and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart." That solitude can be poignant. Consider the beginnings of three recent books, picked more or less at random:
Toward evening, the natural light becomes
intelligent and answers, without demur:
"Be assured! You are not alone...."
—From Descartes' Loneliness by Allen Grossman
Dress of dreams and portents, worn
in memory, despite
the posted warnings
sunk deeply into the damp
all along the shore. (The green
tragedy of the sea
about to happen to me.)
—From Lilies Without by Laura Kasischke
I don't know what kind of man I am.
I know it was not hate I felt;
It was not the disgust and the stone in my belly.
—From Rift by Forrest Hamer
Yet just as America has (mostly) avoided the trap Tocqueville feared, American poets find ways to reach outside themselves, however tentatively. Yes, there's a great deal of loneliness in the quotes above, but there's beauty too, and much of that beauty stems from ambivalence and ambiguity: an uncertainty about what might be said, whom it might be said to, and how it might be taken. And ambivalence isn't refusal or rejection. If poets are unsure whom to address—and by extension, unsure of their relationship with society—the modern lyric still wants to address someone. As a result, our poets edge toward politics, they edge away from it; but either way, they are conscious of an existence outside themselves. The path to a richer political poetry is still open.
And that, of course, brings us to Ralph Nader. Or rather, it brings us to the difficult question of the contemporary political poem, one of the most striking recent examples of which was posted by Ralph Nader on his website in late March. Here is "Don't Listen to Senator Leahy":
Just read where Senator Patrick Leahy is calling on you to drop
out of the Presidential race.
I know something about this.
Here's my advice:
Don't listen to people when they tell you not to run anymore.
That's just political bigotry.
Listen to your own inner citizen First Amendment voice.
This is America.
Just like every other citizen, you have a right to run.
Whenever you like.
For as long as you like.
It's up to you, Hillary.
Just tell them—
Get used to it.
OK, so it's not a good poem. But Nader's effort, however clunky, helps to underscore the confusion we feel over "political poetry" in general. Is a political poem simply a poem with "political" words in it, like "Congress" or "Dachau" or "egalitarianism"? Or is it a poem that discusses the way people relate (or might relate) to one another? If that's the case, are love poems political? What about poems in dialect? Should we draw a firm line, and say that a political poem has to have some actual political effect? Should it attempt to persuade us in the way most "normal" political speech does?
Nader's poem is helpful here, because it's about as decisively "political" as anyone could ask. It's concerned with a specific political situation; rooted in an identifiable political philosophy; addressing a particular political actor; written in language that can be understood and appreciated by its intended audience; and finally, offered in a public forum where it can have maximum persuasive effect. More than anything else, though, "Don't Listen to Senator Leahy" is noteworthy because it's comfortable with the idea of politics as politics; it doesn't presume to stand outside the details of political life while offering judgment on that life. If the poem lacks the elegance of Tennyson's poetic advice to Gladstone on the Franchise Bill ("Steersman, be not precipitate in thine act"), it at least demonstrates a similar spirit of public involvement. There's no question that Nader knows whom he's addressing in this poem, or that he feels he has the right to do so in public.
The more typical contemporary American political poem, however, is a bit different. Consider "Bush's War" by Robert Hass:
I typed the brief phrase, "Bush's War,"
At the top of a sheet of white paper,
Having some dim intuition of a poem
Made luminous by reason that would,
Though I was not sure of them entirely,
Set the facts out in an orderly way.
Berlin is a northerly city. In May
At the end of the twentieth century
In the leafy precincts of Dahlem Dorf,
South of the Grunewald, near Krumme Lanke,
The northern spring begins before dawn
In a racket of birdsong.
Hass proceeds to discuss the flora and fauna of the German spring, with a particular focus on asparagus, which is apparently "served on heaped white platters/With boiled potatoes and parsley butter,/Or shavings of Parma ham and lemon juice,/Or spring of sorrel and smoked salmon." Then he talks about wartime deaths throughout the twentieth century ("Firebombing of Tokyo, a hundred thousand/In a night"). He concludes that the real problem in the world is "a taste for power/That amounts to contempt for the body. . . . It's hard to say which is worse, the moral/Sloth of it, or the intellectual disgrace."
That asparagus sounds delicious. Still, it's worth asking whom this poem is intended for, and what it's hoping to achieve. Unlike Nader, Hass seems to be talking to himself—always a difficult way to start a political conversation—and despite the boldly specific title, "Bush's War" has less to do with the American invasion of Iraq than with a kind of generalized horror at violence. (Otherwise, it's hard to understand what Tokyo's doing in there, aside from serving as another crudité on the atrocity platter.) Hass's feelings are praiseworthy and his despair at American policy is justifiable, but the poem never addresses its political subject in terms that are actually political. It puts forward no argument, makes no revelatory comparison, confronts no new audience, engages no misconception in language likely to be understood by the deceived, and so on and so on. Having dared, to his credit, a truly political poem, Hass is unable to muster an engaging political voice, and instead retreats into the conventions of the contemporary meditative lyric. Consequently, the poem appears to exist in a world of easeful salon conversation, in which phrases like "moral sloth" and "contempt for the body" apply only to people not actually in the room, and in which monologues are perfectly acceptable, because everyone's already thinking the same thing.
Which, to be fair, they are. Most contemporary American political poems are written for contemporary American poets, which means that political poems generally have more relevance to the politics of the poetry world than to the politics of America. The Language poets have yet to topple capitalism by undermining narrative, but they've gotten some coveted jobs and made their way onto syllabi. Hass's poetry has yet to unsettle anyone's assumptions about the Iraq War, but he's been praised by Robert Pinsky for "meditat[ing] on the persistent mass violence and self-righteousness of a century" and picked up the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. None of this is inappropriate—the politics of the poetry world have merit too—but perhaps we should be careful about our tendency to separate political poetry from the demands of rhetoric, or to declare that "all poetry is political," or to equate observations about our emotional states with political speech. We should be careful because politics is its own world, whose actors have probably never heard of "The Idea of Order at Key West," and whose customs must be acknowledged before they can persuasively be challenged.
Sometimes, however, persuasion is a matter of timing. That is, aside from the question of whether a poem is political, there is also the question of when a poem is political. Auden wrote "September 1, 1939," as a rhetorical (and anti-rhetorical) response to Germany's invasion of Poland. Then, its political moment past, the poem spent decades as a vague statement about being one of "the Just" who are, alas, so widely misunderstood—and Auden became annoyed enough with its self-congratulatory tone that he left it out of collections. But then, of course, came September 11, 2001, and the poem emerged again as fully political, fully connected to the spirit of a time and place. Indeed, Auden's poem has few rivals among the poetry associated with September 11. One of them, though, might be "Home to Roost" by Kay Ryan:
are circling and
blotting out the
day. The sun is
bright, but the
chickens are in
the way. Yes,
the sky is dark
dense with them.
They turn and
then they turn
are the chickens
you let loose
one at a time
Now they have
the same kind
at the same speed.
The only problem, of course, is that "Home to Roost" was written prior to September 11 and has nothing whatsoever to do with the attack, its aftermath, or the now-famous invocation of this specific phrase by Jeremiah Wright. Ryan enjoys tweaking clichés, but when a particular cliché is thrown into political relief—as often happens—then her poem tends to follow. It'll be another five years before she can call this one her own again, which probably annoys her endlessly.
One of the problems with political poetry, then, 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. While it's probably true that most poets are not, as Tom Buffenbarger said, "fighters"—by which he meant "political actors"—it's also true that poems like "Home to Roost" are unpredictable. They have their own realities, and the worlds they contain cannot be lightly dismissed. 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.
The Politics of Poetry