27 October 2008

Do it (with feeling).

For some reason, the term "political poetry" continues to carry a lot of negative baggage, even during a time of political turmoil and excitement. "Political poetry" is alleged to lack self-control or serious craft. It's gratuitous. It's derivative. It's not literary. It's incendiary. It's pretentious. You have to smell like patchouli when writing and reading it. And so on. Sure, these are stereotypes, but they're ones that stick.

I'll admit to having written some crappy (and mediocre) political poems back when I was a student at U Mich, and I may have even smelled like patchouli then, too. I was reading too much Ginsberg and burning too much incense, and feeling too much in love with the world. Against Forgetting was my new bible. Even now, a lot of the poetry that I like is "political" in some way, whether it's Zbigniew Herbert or James Allen Hall or Pablo Neruda or Cate Marvin.

The other day I was talking to my MFA students about writing funny poems that don't make some kind of statement about The Human Condition. I feel guilty when I'm not saying something deeper, even if the something deeper is that you shouldn't hang out in a burned-down barn with strangers. I wonder how many of us feel the same obligation, but try not to have too much of an overt, preachy message. We wouldn't want to get political or anything, right?

People have told me that my poems make a political statement about women, and blighted areas of the country, and that is absolutely intentional. I don't think I could write more than five poems without alluding to those themes in some way. But the poems aren't like this:

Oh Midwest!
You crap-land, you snap-land.
Your red states and head states.
Your parkas and hot dog stands.
I shake my fist at all the haterz.
Down to all the big box stores.
Oh Midwest!
I am your sweet hometown vixen.
Won't you love me back some day?
(then some kissing sounds)

I think that the most effective political poems are the ones that don't announce themselves as such, and just sneak up on you. The kinds of poems that make you think differently about the world. The kinds of poems that you'll never be able to shake.

Any thoughts about "political poetry" in our current climate? Will it make a comeback? Do we have an obligation, as poets, to comment upon the world at large? And how exactly do we do that?


Karen J. Weyant said...

Doesn't everyone go through a Ginsberg stage? :) I admit that I think I write political poems, but I don't really sit down to write political poems. I write about what I know -- comments about working class issues and women in the workplace -- but that's political, I guess.

As poets, I do think we have an obligation to tackle political issues, especially if we can somehow give a voice to those who have been silenced. But I would like to think that the Ginsberg Era is over....

Penultimatina said...

It's funny, because I am always getting irate at my students for not appreciating Ginsberg enough (except for Nick, who is writing an awesome senior honors history project on him--hi Nick, if you're out there).

I thought that maybe it was just my reading of Ginsberg, that I didn't do him justice, so I brought in videotapes of him reading, and that seemed to help my students get into it.

But maybe they need something new. They need *us*, Karen! ;)

Justin Evans said...

America I've given you all and now I'm nothing.
America three dollars and seventy-four cents April 26, 2008.
I can't stand my own mind.

* * *

America I can feel your pulse quicken
America there is no sleeping now
with this election eight days left.
I can see the future.

julie platt said...

ha ha, excellent revision, Justin.


i'm not sure that we need to "do" political poetry so much as examine, as poets, our own political structures. we have to think about what we're saying and doing, who we're excluding, who we're elevating, what our institutions say about us, etc. basically, i think we have think about our rhetorics to see where our poetics are, and figure out where they are going.

aah! the rhetoricians! they gots me! but i heart them.

Lyle Daggett said...

I believe all human activity is political, in the sense that it takes place in the context of human history and the actions of other human beings. So, a poem -- any poem -- is in at least some sense political, makes political choices, whether conscious on the part of the poet or not.

Two of the poets whose work has been most important to me over the years are Thomas McGrath and Sharon Doubiago, both of whom wrote/write much poetry with explicit political content. From the time I first began writing poems, I've conceived of poetry as -- at least partly -- a vehicle to express political ideas and present political content. I've alway believed that political ideas and content can belong in poetry, that politically explicit poems are as valid and essential as love poems, poems about nature or about spiritual epiphany, or any other "subject matter."

I feel this way with regarding to poets I like to read, and when I'm working on my own poems. (For my own poems, I'm speaking here of my intentions -- I obviously can't say objectively how well I've actually succeeded in bringing explicit political content into my poems.)

Other poets I've especially liked for their handling of political content in poems include Muriel Rukeyser, Carl Sandburg, Pablo Neruda, Paul Eluard, Anuradha Mahapatra, Bert Meyers, Dale Jacobson, Margaret Atwood, Anya Achtenberg, Zoe Anglesey -- to name a few.

Frank (the Colt) said...

You mention two of my favorite poets, Zbigniew Herbert and Pablo Neruda, as political poets. They do have a political tone, but they can write the great poems because they are writing about witnessing the terrible things, such as Neruda asking his reader “to come and see the blood in the streets.” These two are able to write their political poems because they don’t have them come out and make a huge political statement.

Being a fan of both poetry and politics you’d think that I’d like political poetry more, but too many writing try to make an issue out of everything. Poetry of witness, I believe, best allows the writer to give the reader to see the world of the poet and decide for themselves.

Bill Knott said...

my "Collected Political Poems 1965-2007"
can be downloaded for free as a pdf
from Lulu.com,

and is also posted on my blog in its entirety
for open access——

as are all my books, all my poetry, actually . . .

not that anybody's interested—

John Gallaher said...

As I just posted on C. Dale's blog:

[So many politicians these days are writing their own rather avant garde political poetry nearly every time they speak. Rumsfeld and Palin have both been quite, um, noticed for it.]

But, to be less serious about it, there is always a political dimension to art, but that's side-stepping the question.

There is room, and a calling-to, for political poetry right now, certainly. But not for political poetry aimed as persuasive speech. The political poetry I find myself returning to, is poetry of the political, not poetry toward the administration of specific policies.

That sounds more abstract than I meant it to.

Word Verification: thuflizi

Steve Fellner said...


Thank you for posting this. It gives me an excuse to write a personal note to Bill Knott.

Dear Bill, I am a sycophant. I am constantly trying to climb my way to the top, and I have decided that I want to use you as a vehicle to catapult myself into fame.

I have been called a young Bill Knott on many occassions. Or the young Bill Knott minus the inventiveness. Inventiveness is overrated in a way, as I'm sure you would agree. What's the point if most of the world doesn't appreciate it.

I have never bought any of your books. But I have read them all. Through interlibrary loan. Which as you must know takes more effort than simply purchasing them using Amazon.com.

I cannot determine whether you're reading for a relationship with me, and have tried to on numerous occasions. When you wrote a post on Seth Abramson's blog I was jealous and stopped reading him. He gets enough love. Look at all the magazines he's published in. It's all right there. I got rejected from University of Iowa. Twice. One of my applications claimed that I was a young Bill Knott. It didn't seem to make a difference. Someone told me you were on the application committee.

I was wondering if you wanted to apply with me to get on the Harriet Blog. We could write collaborative posts. I post there all the time (See an earlier post by Javier Huerta), but no one has asked me to
be a contributor. With your name, we might have a chance.

Is it too much to ask for you to help me advance my career? Since you are an undeniable failure, don't you think it's your political responsibility to make sure I'm not one?

Here's one last thing that might convince you: I have a Ph.D. in Creative Writing. Everyone tells me it means something.

With much affection,
Steve Fellner

James Allen Hall said...


I love this question.

I think all poems are political poems at base level, since English is itself a violent amalgam of Latinate and Germanic roots (a result of invasion, no?). The barbaric yawp of Whitman is still in our throats, a battle cry.

And because poems make hierarchies in language, in dramatic situation, in mediating between speaker and spoken-to -- not to mention the hierarchies made by lineation.

An excellent essay about political poetry occurs in Carl Dennis' book Poetry as Persuasion. And, of course, Adrienne Rich's essay, "The Location of the Poet: Blood, Bread and Poetry" (in her _Blood, Bread, and Poetry_) is really instructive as well.

Sorry to be so long-winded.


word verification: nations. (your blog contains multitudes!)

Charles said...

Interesting that rhetoric came up here. I think many readers of poetry are turned off by poetry of rhetoric, which much political poetry is assumed to be, because it tends to rely less on image and more on argument. But consider Louise Gluck, who is a poet of rhetoric in many ways...yet not "obviously" political (whatever that means).

Sidebar: And yet, where are all the political novels?

Personally, I think, along the same lines as James, that poetry is often political in nature. Metaphor is, at its heart, a power relationship in which one thing is subsumed by another. And simile, too, is about power--equality, or at least approximation of equality.

And some people use poetic forms or structures as a vehicle to express political ideas because people perceive poetry as being about ideas, or as having a ceremonial quality that lends itself toward filibustering...

I am random today.

Collin Kelley said...

My chapbook "After the Poison" is all political work, but I think it takes a number of twists and turns on the idea of "political." There's body politics, human trafficking, genocide and a few swipes at Bush and Reagan along the way. I think political poetry is essential.

Steve Fellner said...


I've been checking these posts every 20 minutes to see if Bill Knott has written back to me, but he hasn't. That makes me sad.

Because he hasn't, I'd like to address Lyle's post which makes the claim that all poetry is in a sense political. That sort of rhetoric makes me nervous, because it ELASTICIZES the word political to such a degree that it's impossible to have a conversation. When I hear someone use the word political poetry, I assume (and hope) they're talking about a poetry that names (explicitly names) specific leaders, institutions, governmental entities, etc and offers a critique of them.

For me, just because someone from a marginalized group is writing about being from a marginalized group does not in any way preclude it's a political poem. Some times they may just be basking in their own identity , hoping that the world admires them for living in Provincetown or that someone gave them a weird look somewhere sometime ago.

And to the others, what's wrong with restorting to didacticism (don't a lot of us turn to the arts to be told how we should live?) or even a polemic or a rant?

I think there's so much fear surrounding the political time because it might not last, it might be of the moment. IT DOESN'T ASK TO BE CONSIDERED TIMELESS. It might become insignificant the moment the words touch the page, but isn't the spiritual act of fighting for good outweigh all that?

Steve Fellner

John Gallaher said...

I just wish I had written "I am your sweet hometown vixen." I would love to have that in a poem.

Steve Fellner said...


To transform that line into a political poem (according to my philosophy) all you have to say is "I am your sweet hometown vixen, George Bush" and then presto, you are fighting the evil powers of the word. Job accompished.

jeannine said...

I think that members of our generation (broadly, Gen X and Y) are much more suspicious of politics - and the rhetoric and certainty and self-righteousness that politics seems to have enshrouding it - and therefore less apt to write a broad, obvious political poem that perhaps the previous generation.
Ambiguities are fascinating, especially in poetry, and especially in political poetry. How can you make room for ambiguity in a political poem?
I think when I started writing the Villainess poems I was just trying to be funny, but then there was all that blood and statistics in the news every day about women getting raped and killed and mutilated and that stuff started getting into the poems. Now I worry some of them were too obvious, too political.
I think Matthea Harvey's Modern Life is political in a successful, terrifying, ambiguous way.

M. C. Allan said...

There's a terrific new political poetry anthology out right now. Blogged about it a while back. It's an interesting subject to grapple with; the poems read at this reading were all very different, and some left me cold. But Flynn and Hayes are incredible.


Take on May

It's the first day of finals week and I already have that loopy off-my-routine feeling. Waiting for things to grade, and when those ...