In an earlier post of a few days ago ("Political Poetry"), I spoke of political poetry and I asked folks to share some of the political poems that they admire here in the US. The list began, and I hoped it would continue. But it has not continued.
I am curious about how "poltical" is defined. Would Robert Pinsky be safely called a political poet? 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. And those children that Patricia talks about who write about their abuse--surely their capacity to break silence is a political act and their poems, though confessional in nature and probably not calling for action, are political, are they not?
But it cannot be as simple as that. I suspect that when I speak of the political poem I am speaking of the poem that seems engaged in using language to effect some kind of political change or transformation. I also suspect that when I speak of the political, I mean that somehow, the poems are rooted in speaking to present realities and offering a political view point on them.
But all of this sounds like the fodder for really bad poetry--for propaganda. Still, this anxiety is based on a lie. There are great poems that manage to achieve all of these things I have listed and still be remarkable as works of art. Kenneth Goldsmith says that utilitarian poetry fails as art. I can't accept that when I think of Linton Kwesi Johnson's poems, "Five Nights of Bleeding" and "Sonny's Letter".
But I am still searching for the language to talk about political poetry. The examples of political poets working today will help us to do that. I encourage folks to add to the list.
For those who are anxious about this seeming downer of topic, I will soon be asking about whether it is possible to write an erotica poem that is artful. Kenneth, what about the erotic?

Originally Published: May 11th, 2007

Born in Ghana in 1962, Kwame Dawes spent most of his childhood in Jamaica. As a poet, he is profoundly influenced by the rhythms and textures of the country, citing in a recent interview his “spiritual, intellectual, and emotional engagement with reggae music.” His book Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius (2007)...

  1. May 11, 2007
     Nic Sebastian

    He wrote for the stage in order to act in history, to engage his audience in issues of collective concern, and to change – or explore what it means to change – social reality.
    Ronald Aronson on Sartre, talking about engaged literature. I thought his definition pretty much covered it all and I liked the "act in history" part especially. I have a post on my blog about engaged literature, which I could reproduce here, but I think there may be too many links in it to get back the spam filter. Here’s the URL for the post, just in case.
    Best regards, Nic

  2. May 12, 2007
     Kwame Dawes

    Nic thanks for that quote. You left out the url for some reason.

  3. May 12, 2007
     Nic Sebastian

    It's there -- move your mouse over "URL" and you'll get that hand thingy showing a live link. Cheers, Nic

  4. May 13, 2007

    "Crimes against human rights, never confessed and never publicly denounced, are a poison which destroys the possibility of a friendship between nations. Anthologies of Polish poetry publish poems of my late friends...and give the date of their deaths...It is absurd not to be able to write how they perished, though everybody in Poland knows the truth...."
    Czeslaw Milosz
    from the Nobel Prize Lecture, 1980

  5. May 14, 2007
     Brian Hadd

    Aesthetical achievement politically interpreted! Mr Dawes--amazing!
    The Hood Company

  6. May 15, 2007
     Emily Warn

    A couple weeks ago I heard two American Iraqi-vet soldiers Brian Turner and John Roth read their poems. One of Roth's poems was about an experience that he said will haunt him the rest of his life, and it's certainly haunted me me ever since I heard it. The poem is about a man dressed in all black who suddenly appeared before Roth's patrol and pointed a gun at them. Roth tried to shoot back but his rifle jammed, and then through a series of mishaps, which the poem describes, he mistakenly fired on innocent people. After he read his poem, other vets in the audience stood up and started telling their stories about war.
    I thought about this poem and evening in relation to your asking for a list of poems that use "language to effect some kind of political change or transformation." In this case, the poem and other vets' stories helped us understand the suffering of these particular vets and perhaps helped them live with it, and it brought home the suffering our country is inflicting on the whole population of another country. But I felt uneasy; while we were listening, more soldiers and civilians were being killed in Iraq by our government, so I didn't want to feel good in any way for having listened.
    The experience led to other questions that I think are also raised in Jeffrey's post: If we often write poems out of lived experience, can we write poems that effect political change without actively working in other ways to effect it? I think of your work at the community center in South Carolina. I know that many poets do and can because our imaginations inform our poems along with experience. A friend suggested Randall Jarrell's poem "Protocols" in this regard. And, I think of Juliana Sparhr's book thisconnectionofeveryonewithlungs, which documents the weeks and months leading up to the Iraqi war. Half-diary, half-lyric, it addresses a beloved in an idyllic Hawaiian location while factually reporting the troop movements, the rhetoric of news and politicans, the melting glaciers, the sensuality and comforts of daily life, and South Korean's restarting the nuclear reactors. So that's one book for the list.

  7. May 15, 2007
     Kwame Dawes

    I realize that I would not feel comfortable relying on the poem to effect change. In a sense, the poem is a witness for me. But in my day to day, I have to think about my political engagement as an acitivity--something done. I think of the late Nigerian poet, Christopher Okigbo, who was killed as he fought in the Biafran War. The loss to poetry of that great poet has been immense, and yet it was clear that Okigbo simply did not see making poems as an answer. But this phrasing is unfair. "Simply making poems" is an unfair way of pitting two political acts against each other. They are their own things--their own legitimate expressions of the political. The Iraqui-vets writing poems understand that to be honest poets, they must engage the politics that haunts their lives. The list of political poems is actually impressive. Very impressive.
    One love

  8. July 10, 2007

    I wanted to comment before now but just couldn't get around to it. I will just keep it brief, I recently did a BBC interview where I was classed as a "protest poet" and I'm still toying with whether or not I should accept this tag? does that make me political?
    blood fi oil (part 2)
    from sun up to sun dung
    people nuh nyam
    gun shot blazing in Sudan
    Janjaweed bad breed hab dem plan
    initiated by Bush an him gangs
    chasing black Africans affa dem lan
    fi exploit de oil wut billions a gallong
    wanted dead or alive by de oil barrons
    time fi talk de truth United Nation
    time fi talk de truth Kofi Annan
    de scramble fi Africa on de rise again
    United Snake and A-robs a fren
    now humanitatian crisis
    lata a rise in oil prices
    lives nuh wut nutten to Hallibutten
    a time fi black people show dem suppen
    an start cut troat deepa dan dem well
    an bury de corps a de oil cartels
    wen a nuh one ting a de ada
    masacre afta masacre
    wen a nuh precious metal a stone an rubba
    from Angola to Liberia
    from Congo to Rwanda
    hundreds a panya maschette escape from Beljum
    an a rip thru skull lakka bullits from a gun
    rite thru Africa mi seet
    blood a spill fi de mark a de beast
    Darfur region tun ghost town
    Janjaweed malitia a hunt dem dung
    raping an a killing
    village bun dung to de grun
    man ina numba ten an oval office
    a tun an a twist
    a sey dis yah a nuh genocide
    is jus anada humanitarian crisis
    but millions a die
    caan even bite de fly
    wha pitch pon dem mouth caana
    not even a drink a waata
    de international community sey dem a help
    but de media jus a help dem self
    United States put sanctions pon medical supplies
    fi mek black people die like flies
    why! why!
    world leaders why
    how many will ave to die
    fi de price a de oil
    blood! blood! blood fi oil
    ©2004 Kokumo’s poetry published by copy right control (

  9. March 25, 2008
     Tom Zart

    America, the abundant, the place I was born
    I'll cherish till the day I die.
    Where the bones of past heroes lie buried in the ground
    Who loved her the same as I.
    Her mountains are so tall they reach for the sky
    With prairies where the green grasses grow.
    There's billions of trees where wild birds nest
    With creatures that flourish below.
    That blue gold called water with which we are blessed
    As raindrops or crystallized snow;
    Changes to rivers and fresh water lakes
    While the winds of our seasons blow.
    There's the haunt of a whistle from a lonely freight train
    Racing on ribbons of steel
    With the harvest of farms and from the factories
    Balanced in a box on a wheel.
    Some cities have buildings a hundred stories tall
    Structures of concrete, glass and steel.
    A statue in a harbor, a present from France
    Describes how, inside, we feel.
    That flag on the moon with red and white stripes
    Proves America’s dreams come true.
    A country of heroes who line up to protect
    The past, the present and the few.
    We’ll defeat terrorism as it should be fought
    Never letting Satan’s horde chase us to our door.
    Safeguarding our borders and system of life
    As our forefathers sacrificed before.
    Never be afraid to be proud of America
    And march with the brave, faithful and just.
    Refusing to submit to the will of our enemies
    Standing firm to preserve what we trust.
    Most of the time as a politician stands up
    Along with the truth, their brain sits down.
    Promising anything and everything to anyone
    While posing to the public, to be on common ground.
    The higher the office the greater the corruption
    As candidates compete for those dead presidents of green.
    While we're taxed to death to fund their pork
    Our cost for everything has become obscene.
    Thank God there are some better than most
    Not squeaky clean, but more honest than others.
    Regardless of party, they deserve our vote
    For they share our thoughts like sisters and brothers.
    Politicians who wish to be revered by history
    Must earn their fame by living the truth.
    Any who continue to mislead and deceive
    Must be shunned by the voter at the booth.
    Obama 08’
    A soldier for the people
    Who’s been up and who's been down
    Though while on his journey
    He has never turned around.
    Facing more than flesh and blood
    With Worthington’s two-faced hoard.
    Opposing all who test his soul
    With integrity as his sword.
    The wicked casts their dark net
    Over any they may charm.
    Plotting to mislead the flock,
    While pretending to do no harm.
    He’ll expose the devious daily
    As he works for you and me.
    We're not alone in our struggle
    To preserve America the free.
    His personal goals of well being
    Will never stand in the way
    Of doing his public duty
    No matter what others may say.
    His devotion shall prove contagious
    It's the brilliance of his kind
    What you find within him
    Is great character of mind.
    With faith and courage, he must live
    For his life to be complete
    With good morals and family life
    He’ll triumph, even in defeat.
    He was raised to participate
    Within his community
    With his fellow men and women
    He’ll enrich life, hope and liberty.
    McCain 08’
    We'll defeat terrorism as it should be fought
    Never letting Satan's horde chase us to our door.
    Safeguarding our borders and system of life
    As our forefathers sacrificed before.
    Never be afraid to be proud of America
    And march with the brave, faithful and just.
    Refusing to submit to the will of our enemies
    Standing firm to preserve what we trust.
    America has survived all attempts to destroy
    Knowing the cruelty and sorrow of war
    And we who remain must help keep her free
    For those who can march no more!
    Those who wish to be President
    Must practice what they teach.
    For their people need inspiring
    To believe what they preach.
    Take heed therefore, unto yourselves
    You overseers of the flock
    Or the voters shall cast you out
    For your futures are not of rock.
    Life may place us in deep waters
    Though it doesn't wish us to drown.
    It's our past record that lets others know
    Who we are as we smile or frown.
    If you wish to be remembered
    From the truth you must never part.
    Power corrupts the best of us
    When we stop listening to our heart.
    Hillary 08’
    An angry woman opens her mouth
    And shuts her mind to reason.
    She who stays slow to anger
    Is loved by more each season.
    Anger snuffs the lamp of thought
    And it's hard to stay serene.
    Where anger rules hatred thrives
    Then the world we love turns mean.
    She who fans the coals of hate
    Has no reason to complain.
    If some hot sparks scorch her face
    Her anguish is thus her pain.
    Anger is a human madness
    Which consumes the heart and mind.
    She who rules her spirit with love
    Shall be praised by all mankind.
    Tom Zart
    Most Published Poet
    On The Web

  10. March 25, 2008
     bill knott

    I hate to mention my "Selected Political Poems 1965-2005",
    which is posted in its entirety on my blog
    for open access and free download . . .
    but here's a question: who has the "right" to write
    a political poem?
    as a male WASP, did I have the right
    over those forty years
    to try to write
    all the poems in that book?
    (I say "try"
    because I assume I failed in
    my attempts,
    but did I have the moral right
    to even try, is my question . . .)

  11. March 26, 2008
     Don Share

    The French Prisoner
    by János Pilinszky
    If only I could forget him, the Frenchman
    I saw outside our quarters, creeping round
    near daybreak in that density of garden
    as if he'd almost grown into the ground.
    He was just looking back, peering about him
    to check that he was safe here and alone:
    once he was sure, his plunder was all his!
    Whatever chanced, he'd not be moving on.
    He was already eating. He was wolfing
    a pilfered turnip hidden in his rags.
    Eating raw cattle feed. But he'd no sooner
    swallowed a mouthful than it made him gag;
    and the sweet food encountered on his tongue
    delight and then disgust, as it might be
    the unhappy and the happy, meeting in
    their bodies' all-consuming ecstasy.
    Only forget that body. . . Shoulder blades
    trembling, and a hand all skin and bone,
    the palm cramming his mouth in such a way
    that it too seemed to feed in clinging on.
    And then the furious and desperate shame
    of organs galled with one another, forced
    to tear from one another what should bind them
    together in community at last.
    The way his clumsy feet had been left out
    of all that gibbering bestial joy; and how
    they stood splayed out and paralyzed beneath
    the body's torture and fierce rapture now.
    And his look too–if I could forget that!
    Retching, he went on gobbling as if driven
    on and on, just to eat, no matter what,
    anything, this or that, himself even.
    Why go on? It turned out that he'd escaped
    from the prison camp nearby–guards came for him.
    I wander, as I did then in that garden,
    among my garden shadows here at home.
    "If only I could forget him, the Frenchman"–
    I'm looking through my notes, I read one out,
    and from my ears, my eyes, my mouth, the seething
    memory boils over in his shout:
    "I'm hungry!" And immediately I feel
    the undying hunger which this wretched creature
    has long since ceased to feel, for which there is
    no mitigating nourishment in nature.
    He feeds on me. More and more hungrily!
    And I'm less and less sufficient, for my part.
    Now he, who would have been contented once
    with any kind of food, demands my heart.
    Translated from the Hungarian by Clive Wilmer & George Gömöri
    From the March 2008 issue of Poetry

  12. June 13, 2008
     Tom Zart

    Poets as a rule are high on adventure
    Like wondering bards or prophets today.
    Embracing hearts and minds with wisdom
    Casting through verse their visions at play.
    Poets have their dreams and their nightmares
    Of love, life, death, faith, and war.
    They feel the pain and tragedy of others
    Even those they’ve never met before.
    They fan the flames of human compassion
    With their stories of the failings of man.
    Professing to follow a higher power
    As they recruit whomever they can.
    Poets are the bell ringers of the soul
    As they depict the past, the present and beyond.
    They sound their alarm of what lies ahead
    As the missteps of man live on.
    In their new uniforms
    The young march off
    Not knowing who shall return.
    With a proud devotion
    They brandish their flag
    Leaving loved ones to wonder and yearn.
    May we all be buried
    By all of our children
    Is an ancient tribal prayer.
    They're so easy to lose
    But so hard to forget
    Such a burden for a parent to bear.
    The taste of victory
    Shall soon be forgotten
    But, never that which was lost.
    For those rows of white headstones
    In peaceful green fields
    Make it easy to tally the cost.
    America has survived
    All attempts to destroy
    Knowing the cruelty of war
    And we who remain
    Must help keep her free
    For those who can march no more!
    © Tom Zart

  13. September 12, 2008
     okello peter cromwell

    i need some political poems to make a great politician with good self esteem