I enjoyed David Orr's essay ["The Politics of Poetry," July/August 2008], and although I agree with many of his points, I think he sells contemporary lyric poetry a bit short in terms of its ability to act politically. This is made clear in his criticism of Robert Hass's poem, "Bush's War." Orr argues that it "puts forward no argument, makes no revelatory comparison, confronts no new audience" and that Hass is "unable to muster an engaging political voice." I'm not one who likes to assert what poetry ought to be or what it should be used for, but if I were looking for what Orr seems to demand from political poetry, I'd simply read an essay. Ralph Nader's poem, for example, doesn't benefit at all from being a poem. Orr praises it for its straightforward engagement with a specific political situation, but the poem would convey the same argument to the same audience if it were written as a paragraph. I go to poetry to explore the human condition, not to hear about someone's political views. For this reason, I steer clear of most political poetry.
This brings me back to Hass's poem and why I think it is one of the most successful political poems written in the past decade. It begins by asserting the poet's inability to "set the facts out in an orderly way," what an essay about Bush's war would attempt to do. Instead, the reader moves through time and place, from beauty to beauty, atrocity to atrocity, in an attempt to understand how a public consciousness can be moved to support violence. The reader is presented with a mind at work, a mind considering the romanticism of love in wartime, the "rage/to injure what's injured us," the pandering of politicians to a public's sense of its own virtue. By the time the poem concludes, it has brilliantly explored the current war in a manner that speaks beyond it.
"Bush's War" is effective because it provides an exploration of the human condition driving current politics and shows the rhetoric of that politics for what it is. By doing so, Hass prepares his readers to be political by means of his poetry instead of simply being political himself. Politics is mostly about convincing people to go along with things based on certain values and assumptions. By writing through the politics to the humanity crafting those values and assumptions, Hass gives us an example of what a good political poem should do, and he does it in a way only one of our finest poets can.