Poetry News

Robert Fitterman on Political Poetry: Not a Vice, at Vice

By Harriet Staff


What's a political poet? Is the world "brimming over with a new political poetry"? Robert Fitterman explicates the haves from the have nots in his most recent article, and considers the politics in Trish Low and Steven Zultanski's poetry, at Vice.

Lately, there are a lot of poets around. I have never read or heard so many new poets. On any given night there are dozens of poetry events in New York City—readings, performances, parties—and not everyone in the house is another poet! Among these younger poets, the air is thick with a heightened sociopolitical awareness. Put the two together and it would seem likely that we are brimming over with a new political poetry. Maybe, but not so fast.

Political poetry is not political activism, even though many poets are also political activists. The use of political subject material doesn’t allow for a free pass on the hard work of artistic invention and keeping in tune to how we absorb or critique our culture. There is no big mystery to this—a poet who is open to contemporary ideas in art and poetry, and who has studied past movements and tendencies, has a pretty good grounding for how to pursue new ways of writing. There are many rich traditions to become aware of, to steal from, to reject. Still, within these many traditions, a poetics that readily accepts established poetic forms and simply infuses these forms with current political content suggests that political poetry is a kind of stagnant genre—universal, unchanging, detached from the particularities of the contemporary moment. There are many platforms for which a politically engaged writer can express himself, but if one chooses to make poems and wants to participate in a dialogue about the sociopolitical impact of poetry, then there are contemporary aesthetic concerns to take on. Nevertheless, one might justly ask: How is that “political”?

How I define “political” poetry in the US is different from how Wikipedia defines it, but the relatively brief history of American poetry serves as a good starting point. For the past 100 or so years, any debate about poetry’s political impact has fallen into one of two categories: (1) inventive poetic forms or (2) direct political content. I would argue that the spectrum of possibilities today is so nuanced and varied that this dividing line blurs to the point of collapse. To some degree, we’re in a moment where the two sides meet more often and fruitfully, but more on this later. [...]

Learn more at Vice.