What Constitutes Political Poetry?
Before starting to write this essay, I simply typed into Google: "What is the etymology of 'politics'?" Below are the results that I received. Then I looked at the webpage and there was also a definition of the word 'politics' for me to read. I've pasted that below too.
Politics comes from the same Greek word from which the title of Aristotle's book Politics (Πολιτικά, Politika) also derives; politika means "affairs of the cities". The book title was rendered in Early Modern English in the mid-15th century as "Polettiques"; it became "politics" in Modern English.
Definition of politics for Students. 1 : the activities, actions, and policies that are used to gain and hold power in a government or to influence a government. 2 : a person's opinions about the management of government.
I'm not of the camp of people who believes everything is political. I tend to think of politics as revolving around governmental negotiations about goods, services, land. I think other people have a more capacious relationship to the word political. I think many poets think about politics as being about power negotiations in relationships, or all power negotiations, or everything. I see poets slap the word political on their poems' titles, but sometimes I'm not sure what exactly is political about the poems' contents.
In an earlier attempt to have this conversation online, I casually dismissed identity politics. I did not think about the ways that identity have dictated who is and who is not a person. This was a big (and lazy) fault on my part. I was too narrow-minded to think: If the author is a black American with a lineage to American slavery, then how is it possible to write an apolitical poem? To be black is often to have been object or property that was bought and sold by the state. Therefore, is it possible to be black in America and not write a political poem? Also, how does this framework relate to people of other identity markers? Can white people claim that their identity poems are also political? I think both of these questions are contingent upon what definitions of the word political are being used.
Thanks to the emotional and intellectual knowledge of some friends, I think I am now more open to understanding the relationship between identity politics (in narrative poems) and other poems of resistance (poems that discuss the structure of the state). They are not mutually exclusive. Apologies for my previous narrow-mindedness here.
I am interested in defining what does and does not constitute as political poetry because I think that these labels have had very real consequences for people who have written under them previously. For example, in El Salvador, the Civil War's most foremost poet, Roque Dalton, was killed for his political inclinations in the year 1975. In 2016, the Saudi Arabian the poet Ashraf Fayadh was sentenced to death by the state for the politics of his poetry, only to have his punishment reduced to an eight-year prison term and 800 lashes.
Already, I have faced backlash at work, in my social life, in my family unit, and literally risked my life due to my politics. So many people have been incarcerated for their political beliefs and given their lives for various causes. To think of political poetry as a trend, or light-heartedly, is to dismiss the potential consequences of political action and to minimize the losses given by generations of freedom fighters.
Recently, in the New York Times there was a highlight of contemporary American political poetry under the headline "Poems of Resistance." From several of the poems though, I walked away not completely sure what was being resisted or what the call to action was. This has happened to me with other poems lauded as political in major poetry magazines, too. I would read the poem and not understand what was being resisted or protested or what was at stake in the poem. In this racist, xenophobic, etc. time, I think that the term "political poetry" has been used to advance the platforms of several cis-white people. I won’t name poets here.
I am wondering why poets such as Craig Santos Perez, who has dedicated his life to literature as a means of speaking against U.S. imperialism and colonization in the Pacific Islands, is not highlighted more as a political poet? I am thinking about Solmaz Sharif, who has dedicated years of her life to speaking against U.S. imperialism and military occupation in the Middle East. I am thinking about the poetry of Alok Vaid Menon, who has given a voice of resistance for trans and gender non-conforming communities of color. Or Danez Smith, who has written poem after poem about police violence, mourning the loss of black people to state violence and demanding some fucking dignity for the death of black people in America. Those are political poets to me, and I think their voices should be held up at this moment of history by the New York Times.
I don't want to read about cis-white poets being lauded as political when they have stayed silent during the Black Lives Matter movement, the deportation of undocumented families, and the murder of trans and gender non-conforming people in our cities. Cis-white poets who have stayed silent on these issues over the years do not deserve the platform of being celebrated as political in this historical moment.
Sometimes, I think that I am getting away with myself. Sometimes I think that I should let anyone call whatever poems they want political. The word political has so many definitions that this essay is oozing with holes for counter arguments. Sometimes I want to claim a different camp. Maybe cis-white people can be this generation's political poets. Maybe I'm more interested in protest poetry. I'm interested in poetry that is rhetorically centered, dangerous and provocative, untrusting, angry, and yelling back at state violence or oppression otherwise seen. If everything is political then maybe I don't like political poetry. I want protest poetry.
Yes, I want protest poetry. In Edward Hirsch’s "The Essential Poets Glossary," he describes protest poetry as "Poetry of dissent and social criticism. It protests the status quo and tries to undermine established values and ideals." In this same book, Hirsch writes of political poetry that it is "Poetry of social concern and conscience. The partisan feeling runs high in the social poetry of engagement. Poets write on both sides of any given war, defend the state or attack it… The premise of political poetry is to carry 'news' or information crucial to the populace." These two definitions are interweaving. Yet, I come to the side of protest.
Fuck Trump. Fuck Cops. Fuck U.S. Imperialism. Fuck I.C.E. Fuck vague poems about the moon or a boy’s blond hair that are called political while black, native, and brown people are being killed by the state and Neo-Nazis are marching in the hundreds publicly. Goodnight.
Poet and activist Christopher Soto, who also uses the name Loma, is the son of El Salvadoran immigrants. He was educated at New York University. In his poems, Soto engages themes of intimacy, trauma, and identity. In a 2014 blog essay for VIDA, Soto writes, “At dinner she asked why I...