"There is simply too much to think about. It is hopeless — too many kinds of special preparation are required. In electronics, in economics, in social analysis, in history, in psychology, in international politics, most of us are, given the oceanic proliferating complexity of things, paralyzed by the very suggestion that we assume responsibility for so much. This is what makes packaged opinion so attractive." So said Saul Bellow - to which political speechwriter Barton Swaim recently added: Another name for "packaged opinion" is "politics." Even if you're a poet, and ostensibly resist prepackaging... people can probably guess who you voted for. Uh oh!

Swaim, in his recent TLS essay "Little Meaning, Strong Words: On Not Knowing the Reasons for One's Vote," claims that "politics is not known, nor has it ever been known, for clarity and a strict adherence to truth." Could be this goes for poetry and poets, too. In this month's issue of Poetry, Robert Archambeau, responding to a recent Harriet post by Lucia Perillo and to David Orr's recent piece for the magazine, "The Politics of Poetry", mulls over the politics of those Shelley called the "unacknowledged legislators" of the world:
There are exceptions, of course, but few would deny that the American poetry demimonde skews leftish, just as, say, Wall Street skews right. [...] Perillo comes close to the source of this leftism when she speculates that "it may be that poets are aligned with the left because they tend to share the concerns of the poor, or at least the not-rich, having only moderate incomes and job stability." There is certainly a sense in which poets, and humanistic intellectuals generally, stand outside the zone of power in America. The situation's a bit more complicated than that, though. Poets are, after all, generally people with a lot of resources—but those resources are more cultural than economic. This is the case even when poets do well economically. A poet who is a full professor in an English department, for example, makes a solidly upper-middle-class salary, and has the kind of job security you just don't find in many fields anymore. While she's comfortably bourgeois in economic terms, though, her real status comes from her cultural resources: in that realm, she's an aristocrat. It's this emphasis on cultural capital that gives poets a somewhat unusual position in society. They have status, but not the kind of status you need to really stand at the helm of power. As Pierre Bourdieu tells us, in The Field of Cultural Production, such people "are neither dominant, plain and simple, nor are they dominated (as they want to believe at certain moments in their history). Rather, they occupy a dominated position in the dominant class, they are the owners of a dominated form of power..."
So what should poets do? Archambeau says:
Some poets have written with the idea that the poem certainly should attempt to persuade in the manner of normal political speech. One thinks of Shelley's "Song to the Men of England," or, in America, of Vachel Lindsay's "Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight," or of Allen Ginsberg on the right day. Others write in a less overtly rhetorical way, and act on their political convictions the way any concerned citizen would, volunteering during elections, writing letters to the editor, signing petitions and the occasional contribution check, and maybe hitting the streets for a demonstration. Still others—mostly in the experimental camp—consider their kind of poetry political by virtue of its very eschewal of the normal language of persuasion. Joshua Clover, for example, takes this position on his blog (a website popular with the experimental poetry crowd). After quoting Wittgenstein's famous quip about how a poem, "even though it is composed in the language of information, is not used in the language-game of giving information," Clover declares that "an equivalent formulation from the perspective of politics" would be that "the poem wishes to confront capital without being used in the language-game of capital." A non-communicative, non-commodifiable poem (a poem, that is, like most of the poems in Clover's own collection, The Totality for Kids), is in this view a kind of declaration of autonomy from the world of power.
To which he drily adds: "One may wonder just what good it does, if any, for the wretched of the earth..."
In the comments stream of the version of this article on the Poetry magazine website, Kent Johnson points out that if it's true that American poets lean left, then "it's a pretty safe kind of leftism." Harriet regular Henry Gould, on the other hand, has this to say:
"... Marvell's various poems on Cromwell; some of Milton's poems; the political subtexts of many of Shakespeare's plays; the moral complexity and engagement of Chaucer and Spenser, Gower & Langland.... where has this level of poetic discourse gone to? Romanticism emphasized the role of poet as visionary outsider, dreamer; Symbolism set up a specifically anti-political rhetoric (cf. Mallarme); Modernism posited the poet as Olympian exile-artifex (Pound, Joyce)... all these movements were protests against what was considered a mercenary, anti-poetic culture & age. So today we have, paradoxically, American citizen-poets, faced with extraordinary historical changes and moral dilemmas, still playing out these antique roles... and wondering why America doesn't pay more attention to them...."
When we interviewed him on this month's Poetry podcast, Archambeau allowed that there's not so much wrong with preaching to the converted: it's what preaching is for, after all. But it got me thinking again about Cole Swensen's concept of hybrid poetry, which tries to show in another way altogether that American poets are far more like each other than the noise of their ideological axe-grinding suggests. Can we be that easily pigeonholed when it comes to both our politics and our praxis?

Originally Published: November 4th, 2008

Don Share became the editor of Poetry in 2013. His books of poetry are Wishbone (2012), Squandermania (2007), and Union (2013, 2002). He is the co-editor of The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine (2012), and editor of Bunting's Persia (2012) and a critical edition of Basil Bunting's poems (2016). He...

  1. November 4, 2008
     Marty Elwell

    Hey Don,
    I'm a former (reformed?) Republican, never a Democrat, and as often as possible a poet. Some of my views are too left for Republicans or Democrats, and others would be deemed conservative. I can't label myself a moderate, because most of my opinions are either far left or far right. For the record, I hate the "two party" system and never found any one candidate that shared the majority of my views during this whole process.
    I appreciate your post's recognition of exceptions to the leftist labeling of poets. I laughed a little at the quote from Perillo generalizing left leaning folk as "humanistic intellectuals". What does this say about the other side of the spectrum? I would package this generalization as "spoken like a true leftist". I know a lot of folks on both sides of the line, and I think all are compassionate intelligent individuals. I would certainly not a label any of them as the opposite of "humanistic intellectuals".
    You once gave me feedback that a polemic or preachy poem runs the risk of alienating the reader. I think this is partly the reason we don't see more successful political poetry. I believe effective political literature/poetry needs to engage the reader, regardless of their point of view, and make them rethink their current position.
    Too much of what is put out in print and on-line today screams "I'm right why won't you just listen". This type of message only appeals to those who already agree.
    I do have to admit, I had no idea what I was voting for when it came to the circuit court judges in Illinois...and what's with voting for the coroner? Why would I care about the coroner's political persuasions if I'm dead?

  2. November 5, 2008
     Joseph Hutchison

    I think it's worth going back to Shelley, whose "unacknowledged legislators" is often cited but not often understood. At the end of "A Defense of Poetry," he writes:

    The most unfailing herald, companion, and follower of the awakening of a great people to work a beneficial change in opinion or institution, is poetry. At such periods there is an accumulation of the power of communicating and receiving intense and impassioned conceptions respecting man and nature. The person in whom this power resides, may often, as far as regards many portions of their nature, have little apparent correspondence with that spirit of good of which they are the ministers. But even whilst they deny and abjure, they are yet compelled to serve, that power which is seated on the throne of their own soul. It is impossible to read the compositions of the most celebrated writers of the present day without being startled with the electric life which burns within their words. They measure the circumference and sound the depths of human nature with a comprehensive and all-penetrating spirit, and they are themselves perhaps the most sincerely astonished at its manifestations; for it is less their spirit than the spirit of the age. Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

    If this is so, and I think it is, poets are not "legislators" in the sense that they create laws (those compromised tubes of sausage), but in the sense that they register shifts in thought and feeling and perception that are in the process of emerging in their culture. The particular political commitments of individual poets are expressions of citizenship, not the Muse–and the nature of those commitments is, whether "safe" or not, is irrelevant to their poetry. (Kent Johnson's sneer is safe in itself: he doesn't bother to say what poets with leftist sympathies should be doing. And Henry Gould's comments are equally pointless, offering nothing but sound-bite clichés about the Canon and a vague condemnation of "American citizen-poets" put forward without a shred of evidence. They might be more convincing if they bothered to name names and suggest alternatives.) On the other hand, poetry that fails to do what Shelley describes is frankly useless, regardless of its authors' politics.
    In the end, we can't know which of our contemporaries are mirroring "the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present." If history is any indication, they are as likely to include little-published poets with highly local audiences as they are to include today's lionized figures. History also hints that the mass of poets–who, as Don accurately notes, are "far more like each other than the noise of their ideological axe-grinding suggests"–will be forgotten sooner rather than later. The poets who end up mattering to later generations are almost always those who are very unlike their contemporaries; poets whose real cause is not just political or just theoretical, but spiritual (in the broadest, non-religious sense: see this essay by David R. Loy to see what I mean). Poets like Joshua Clover can trot out Wittgenstein to their hearts' content, and write all the "non-communicative" poems they want, but they should not kid themselves that these activities are political. They are not political because they are not spiritual; they are not even usefully theoretical for the same reason.
    But let me lay a few cards on the table, at least. Let me name names of poets (all, last I looked, still living) whose work, in my humble estimation, rises to the level Shelley describes:
    Robert Bly
    Ingrid de Kok
    Hans Magnus Enzensberger
    Frank X. Gaspar
    Linda Gregg
    Li-Young Lee
    Bill Knott
    Yusef Komunyaaka
    Philip Levine
    W. S. Merwin
    Adrienne Rich
    Shuntaro Tanikawa
    Tomas Tranströmer
    There are more, older and younger, American and not, but these are poets I go back to often, especially when I lay aside yet another depressingly limited collection full of poems that float away like scraps of paper on the sea....

  3. November 5, 2008
     Philip Metres

    The problem with this discussion, thus far, is that it's not really defining its terms--"politics" is such a broad term, particularly when used as an adjective, that it loses any specificity. Most often, it is used to mark partisan poetry, rather than something called "political"--which I would prefer to define as poetry that is marked by a kind of social temperament, a responsiveness to the polis and to community. Similarly, when one speaks of "audience," there really isn't much in the way of defining the term. Does one mean: "those who read my poem"? "Those who I imagine read my poem?" "Those who would read my poem if they realized my genius"? etc. I am increasingly interested in poetry that has a relationship to specific communities--I've long been tracking poetry's relationship to the peace movement--and to the wider communities of which those are a part (the nation, the globe, etc.).
    One of my favorite recent formulations about poetry and politics is from Susan Schultz, who, when discussing the travesty of considering Don Rumsfeld's speeches "poetry," wrote that "Rumsfeld wants to get people off his scent so he can do things. The poetry in Tinfish [her journal and press] is the scent, you could say – it's really trying to get you deep into a cultural moment or political moment, or just into how language works. That's why I find Rumsfeld so spooky, and why I think Tinfish is so necessary."

  4. November 6, 2008
     Henry Gould

    I'm sorry Joseph Hutchinson finds my comments so pointless. He is equally dismissive of "laws" (= sausage). I'm not sure he actually heard what I was trying to say. I didn't offer a "vague condemnation" of citizen-poets : I was rather expressing the hope of trying to find some at work today.
    Nor was my aim to promote the "Canon". I do believe that various periods in literary history display contrasting strengths and weaknesses, and I was suggesting that if we want a more civic poetry today, we could learn something from the Renaissance era. We could also learn something from the Neoclassical/Restoration period - Pope, Dryden, & so on. It's no accicent that WH Auden, a 20th-cen. poet noted for his capacious social and political discourse, looked to these periods, rather than to the Romantics or Symbolists.
    But again, this kind of thing is passe for Joseph Hutchinson - it's just the malignant Canon, still wheezing along. Joseph would rather look down, with Shelley, from the Olympian heights of Romantic vision, upon the sad vista, the pathetic plain of human civic affairs below. This is what I meant by contemporary American poets miming the antique roles of previous eras, mourning/celebrating their alienation, etc. etc.
    The civic poet, as I understand the beast, does not think of him or herself as a special being, set apart from ordinary citizenry. Civic poetry examines particular occasions, events, manners, crises, problems, in the ordinary civic world we share. The ethical compass which serves as a basis for this inquiry may indeed have some kind of visionary or spiritual ground; but the work of the poem is not to preach but to SHOW, to give evidence, to provide examples, to offer a record of actuality and truth.....
    No, I don't offer any specific examples of contemporary civic or non-civic poetry. Not here, anyway. I'm registering a sense of absence. Certainly I could be wrong. Prove me wrong. Show me some poems that do not wear their passions & opinions on their sleeves; that present a clear but at the same time ambiguous representation of a civic, public, political situation - integrating opposing perspectives and different dimensions (Marvell's "Horatian Ode" on Cromwell has for a long time ben a benchmark for this kind of poetry).