collection

Political Poems

Poets lend voices to current events and elections as they critique and defend the social and political issues of their day.
Photograph of the Lincoln Memorial at night

Plato wanted to banish poets from his Republic because they can make lies seem like truth. Shelley thought poets were “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” and Auden insisted that “poetry makes nothing happen.” This collection of poems point to the many different kinds of political poems, and the reasons for writing them.

Ushering In: U.S. Inaugural Poems

JFK requested Frost, Clinton invited Angelou and Miller, and Obama asked Alexander: read the four poems that have been read at presidential inaugurations.

  • Elizabeth Alexander

    I know there’s something better down the road.
    We need to find a place where we are safe.
    We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

  • Maya Angelou

    But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
    Come, you may stand upon my
    Back and face your distant destiny,

  • Robert Frost

    Something we were withholding made us weak
    Until we found out that it was ourselves

  • Miller Williams

    But how do we fashion the future? Who can say how
    except in the minds of those who will call it Now?

Looking Back to Look Ahead: American Dreams

Poems about democracy, freedom, wonder, and other ideals that have survived centuries.

  • Tim Dlugos

    I’m the cranky President sneaking away
    to swim in the Potomac.

  • Lawrence Ferlinghetti

    and I am waiting
    for the lost music to sound again
    in the Lost Continent
    in a new rebirth of wonder

  • Bob Kaufman

    Listen to the music of centuries,
    Rising above the mushroom time.

  • Carl Sandburg

    Let your laughter come free
    remembering looking toward peace:
    “We must disenthrall ourselves.”

The View from Washington

Presidents and senators strut into the nation's capitol and tower monumentally over the masses.

For the Love of Country: Passionate Critique

These poets reveal the difficulties of the present and hope for different futures.

  • Jena Osman

    Freedom I said: the enduring ally cells.
    Interested in the view, in our aid sensitivities.

  • Adrienne Rich

    this is not somewhere else but here,
    our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,

  • Muriel Rukeyser

    As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
    We would try to imagine them, try to find each other,
    To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile

  • Lorenzo Thomas

    The land was there before us
    Was the land. Then things
    Began happening fast.

Making Nothing Happen: Poetry and Politics

In spite of Auden’s pragmatic truism, poetry insists on a life in politics.

  • Carolyn Kizer

    The poets are going home
    To the blood-haunted villages,

  • Nate Klug

    We can-
    not extricate
    a place from those


    it’s made of,

  • Fred Marchant

    I think that if my tongue alone could talk
    it would swear
    in any court that poetry
    tastes like the iodine in blood,

  • Duane Niatum

    You said to me that day,
    “There’s nothing you can do,”
    and spoke of Auden’s line:
    “Poetry makes nothing happen.”

  • Robert Pinsky

    Is peace merely a vacuum, the negative
    Of creation, or the absence of war?
    The teaching says Peace is a positive energy.
    Still something in me resists that sweet milk,

Unofficial Documents: Homage and Satire

Poems that poke fun at official rhetoric, update beloved national texts, and present political allegories.

  • Linh Dinh

    Those willing to die for their beliefs are:
    a) idealists
    b) terrorists
    c) suckers
    d) insane

  • Bernadette Mayer

    Give me your gentrificatees of the Lower East Side including all the well-
    heeled young Europeans who’ll take apartments without leases
    Give me your landlords, give me your cooperators
    Give me the guys who sell the food and the computers to the public
    schools in District One

  • Howard Nemerov

    No bars are set too close, no mesh too fine
    To keep me from the eagle and the lion,

  • Rosmarie Waldrop

    We holler these trysts to be self-exiled that all manatees are credited
    equi-distant ...

ARTICLES AND BLOG POSTS

Five poets try to determine what makes a poem political.

  • Kwame Dawes

    I suspect that one could posit that poets who shatter how we engage the world through the rupture of language, for instance, are engaged in a political act.

  • Forrest Gander

    Two very different new books, one by Naomi Shihab Nye and one by Kent Johnson, turn epistolary toward remarkably similar and fierce political ends.

  • Eileen Myles

    what is a political poem today and how do we describe, experience, understand the intimate balance going on between information, sentiment and aesthetics that determines how we read a poem and whether it even seems political to us

  • Rachel Zucker

    It’s true that I do not usually sit down to write about something, but more and more I want poems to be about something—something important and meaningful—and I want poetry not just to be something or be about something but to do something.

  • Craig Santos Perez

    For myself, I am always asking: how can poetry effectively address political issues (particularly related to the decolonization of my home island of Guåhan)? At the same time, I ask: how can poetry and poets engage with the public and political sphere beyond the page/book?

PROSE FROM POETRY MAGAZINE

Robert Archambeau and Daisy Fried respond to essays on politics and poetry by David Orr and David Biespiel.

  • David Orr

    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?

  • Robert Archambeau

    I have been working on a book that tries to pull together some kind of answer to the question Orr poses. If I'm lucky, all my rooting around in dingy archives in pursuit of an answer will also produce a thesis or two on a related question, one raised not long ago in a post by Lucia Perillo on the Poetry Foundation's "Harriet" blog: why are contemporary poets generally aligned with the political left?

  • David Biespiel

    America’s poets have a minimal presence in American civic discourse and a minuscule public role in the life of American democracy. I find this condition perplexing and troubling—both for poetry and for democracy.

  • Daisy Fried

    Is Biespiel advocating for more politics in poems? Fewer arguments about poetics for the good of the nation? Arguments about poetics are good for poetry. And have nothing whatsoever to do with public life, whether your poetics are politically-grounded or not.

ESSAY ON POETIC THEORY
  • Jack Spicer

    There are bosses in poetry as well as in the industrial empire and everything else, and what I want to talk to you about today is simply that—how to manage yourself in your own individual way, I guess, since no poet who’s worthy of the term doesn’t.

POETRY OFF THE SHELF PODCASTS
  • From Poetry Off the Shelf

    Robert Lowell's “July in Washington” puts America in a vegetable context.

  • From Poetry Off the Shelf

    Secret terrorist communications or just plain poetry?

  • From Poetry Off the Shelf

    Charles Bernstein, Patricia Smith and Forrest Gander offer presidential advice.

  • From Poetry Off the Shelf

    Elizabeth Alexander on how the Derek Walcott-toting, June Jordan-quoting president will affect poets and poetry.

  • From Poetry Off the Shelf

    Hear who Elizabeth Alexander would have picked and her thoughts on Frost and other past inaugural poets.

  • From Poetry Off the Shelf

    How Seamus Heaney defines Ireland's 1972 troubles with a portrait of a drunken seaman blown up in a pub.