Now that there is renewed hope that action can bring about change, are we going to see a return to explicitly political art?
I went to see the dance company DV8’s latest production, To Be Straight With You, which is described on their website as ‘a poetic but unflinching exploration of tolerance, intolerance, religion and sexuality.’
If someone described a poem that way, I would expect the worst:

too many abstract nouns and grand ambitions, and not enough appeal to the ways in which we are truly surprised and persuaded. And I would take ‘poetic’ to mean soppy, artless and ill thought through.
To Be Straight With You was none of this. Every word spoken on stage came from interviews with people who justified homophobia (often on religious grounds) as well as those who suffered from it. While the words made the truth unavoidably clear, the movement of the dancers was furious, entropic, spasmodic, as if their bodies were, like their subject, being suppressed.
The piece works because it is as serious about its art as it is about its intentions - as a poem should be, as anything should be that is, in a true sense, ‘poetic’.
My only beef: Poetic BUT unflinching? A good poem (even one about flinching) does not flinch.

Originally Published: November 18th, 2008

Lavinia Greenlaw has published three books of poems, most recently Minsk. Her two novels are Mary George of Allnorthover and An Irresponsible Age and she has also published a memoir, The Importance of Music to Girls. Her work for BBC radio includes programs about the Arctic, the Baltic, the solstices...

  1. November 18, 2008
     rahman henry

    Lonelyness / Rahman Henry
    No, not to Be, nothing be created ___
    Sure, Coupling blocks my head
    I 've to fight ;
    Assembly creats even Less
    If there is light ___
    That's loneliness

  2. November 25, 2008
     Troy Camplin

    One can only hope that we won't get a lot of explicitly political poetry, as the vast majority of it is superficial and terrible poetry. Yes, this election has shown us that action can bring about a change in faces -- but one thing we cannot change is physical reality, and that's some of what we were promised would happen. As Francis Bacon once said, to control nature, you must first obey it. The same is true of the economy and of human nature. Of course, the more we learn of each, the more we learn that "control" in the Baconian sense is impossible and undesirable -- but the Left still believes in control. Where are the poems reflecting that reality?

  3. November 25, 2008
     Bill Knott

    One can only hope that we won't get a lot of explicitly political poetry, as the vast majority of it is superficial and terrible poetry.
    . . . and like the vast majority of explicitly apolitical poetry AIN'T
    superficial and terrible?
    i cast my one vote for a lot of explicitly political poetry–
    bring it on, O Gen!

  4. November 25, 2008
     Bill Knott

    . . . . and of course the vast majority of implicitly political poetry
    is superficial and terrible too––
    in any case, i trust the O Gen poets will make their own minds
    up regarding the matter,
    and hopefully they won't be too influenced by the XY Gen cynics and decadents––

  5. November 25, 2008
     Bill Knott

    Elaine Scarry, in "Fins de Siecle" (Johns Hopkins, 1995),
    observes the calendic affect on poetry,
    and suggests that just as many poets who emerged in the 1880s/90s
    were decadent,
    so the fledgling poets of the 1980s/90s exhibited similar traits––
    but a newer crop of poets may possess, as Greenlaw posits, "renewed hope" and a fresh idealism of their own choosing . . .

  6. November 26, 2008
     Bill Knott

    Greenlaw wants the happy medium: a poetry that "is as serious about its art as it is about its intentions"––
    but think of Paz's view that the history of modern poetry is that of an "oscillation between the religious temptation and the revolutionary temptation"– (in Greenlaw's terms, between art and intention)–
    the median of these two extremes is rarely struck–or stable–or granted a state of synthesis–
    so I hope the upcoming poets–the O Gen poets–will put their intentions first and their art second–
    especially since the poets predecessor to them, the '80-'90s XY Gen of Neo-Decadents are so opposed to intention, so artfully disengaged–
    It seems time for the tempt to oscillate again, away from art and toward intent,

  7. November 26, 2008
     Lavinia Greenlaw

    Is the problem something to do with the fact that our reflexive mode is the lyric rather than the epic? Where are the good epic poems of our age? And do we need them?

  8. November 26, 2008
     Lavinia Greenlaw

    Greenlaw wants no happy medium. I want a poem that says something that matters and says it well, regardless of its subject. I observed that the dance piece I saw happened to be both good art and powerful politics, and wondered why that seemed so unusual.
    I think, Mr. Knott, that we are using the terms 'art' and 'intention' differently. I would not transpose my terms with those of Paz who is, I believe, talking about two different forms of poetic imperative, which would for me both come under 'intention'.
    I don't think art and intention are 'two extremes' except where the absence or weakness of one is used to justify the other. They are different aspects: how something is made and what it represents, and I am simply saying a good poem should be equally ambitious in both.
    I agree that political poetry can be terrible whether it is explicitly or implicitly formed. I am just wondering why it is so hard to produce art that is politically explicit and artful at the same time.
    Who the hell are all these Os and Xs and Ys and Neos?