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.
“Praise Song for the Day” by 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.
from “On the Pulse of Morning” by Maya Angelou
But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
“The Gift Outright” by Robert Frost
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
“Of History and Hope” by 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.
“White Petals” by Tim Dlugos
I’m the cranky President sneaking away
to swim in the Potomac.
“I Am Waiting” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
and I am waiting
for the lost music to sound again
in the Lost Continent
in a new rebirth of wonder
“Believe, Believe” by Bob Kaufman
Listen to the music of centuries,
Rising above the mushroom time.
“The Long Shadow of Lincoln: A Litany” by 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.
“America Politica Historia, In Spontaneity” by Gregory Corso
The umbrella’d congressmen; the rapping tires
of big black cars, the shoulders of lobbyists
caught under canopies and in doorways,
“July in Washington” by Robert Lowell
We cannot name their names, or number their dates—
circle on circle, like rings on a tree—
“On the Steps of the Jefferson Memorial” by Linda Pastan
Looking at Jefferson now,
I think of the language
he left for us to live by.
“To the States” by Walt Whitman
Who are they as bats and night-dogs askant in the capitol?
For the Love of Country: Passionate Critique
These poets reveal the difficulties of the present and hope for different futures.
“Dropping Leaflets” by Jena Osman
Freedom I said: the enduring ally cells.
Interested in the view, in our aid sensitivities.
“What Kind of Times Are These” by Adrienne Rich
this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
“Poem” by 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
“Inauguration” by 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.
“Ingathering” by Carolyn Kizer
The poets are going home
To the blood-haunted villages,
“Wisconsin” by Nate Klug
a place from those
it’s made of,
“The Salt Stronger” by 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,
“Consulting an Elder Poet on an Anti-War Poem” by Duane Niatum
You said to me that day,
“There’s nothing you can do,”
and spoke of Auden’s line:
“Poetry makes nothing happen.”
“Stupid Meditation on Peace” by Robert Pinsky
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.
“Quiz” by Linh Dinh
Those willing to die for their beliefs are:
“The Tragic Condition of the Statue of Liberty” by 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
“Political Reflection” by Howard Nemerov
No bars are set too close, no mesh too fine
To keep me from the eagle and the lion,
“Shorter American Memory of the Declaration of Independence” by Rosmarie Waldrop
We holler these trysts to be self-exiled that all manatees are credited
Read our sampler of Poems for Peace.
ARTICLES AND BLOG POSTS
Five poets try to determine what makes a poem political.
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.
“Political Poetry: An Epistolary Conversation” by 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.
“Political Economy” by 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
“AWP Report (Political Poetry)” by 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.
“Poetry, Politics, and Letters to the Empire” by 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.
“The Politics of Poetry” by 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?
Response to Orr: “Poetry, Politics, and Leanings-Left” by 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?
“This Land Is Our Land” by 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.
Response to Biespiel: “Letter to the Editor” by 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
California Lecture: from “Poetry and Politics” (1965) by 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
The Nature of Political Power: Robert Lowell's “July in Washington” puts America in a vegetable context.
Poems from Guantanamo: Secret terrorist communications or just plain poetry?
Poems for President Obama: Charles Bernstein, Patricia Smith and Forrest Gander offer presidential advice.
Inaugural Poetics: Hear who Elizabeth Alexander would have picked and her thoughts on Frost and other past inaugural poets.
Bloody Sunday & the Fisherman's Ghost: How Seamus Heaney defines Ireland's 1972 troubles with a portrait of a drunken seaman blown up in a pub.