Monday, October 24, 2005

Political Poetry

Our "sister journal", Pemmican presents in it's commentary an excellent statement regarding "political poetry" by Robert Edwards, editor of Pemmican and, in my opinion, one of the finest poets in North America.

Talking Points for Political Poetry

Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,For poetry makes nothing happen: it survivesIn the valley of its making where executivesWould never want to tamper…
In Memory of W. B. Yeats, by W. H. Auden
There is no point in writing political poems because political poetry changes nothing in the world.
The idea behind this gem seems to be that if you can't work some voodoo through your poem at the ballot box, then why put pen to paper at all? Those who pull this venerable chestnut out of their pocket love to quote Auden's poem for Yeats, apparently forgetting (as Auden did) Auden's own radical past.
Everyone "knows", for instance, that poetry, political or otherwise, doesn't change anything. The invisible equal sign here says, in effect: because political poetry doesn't change anything, "therefore" it shouldn't be written. Never, however, would this same argument be seriously considered if the same standards were applied to a poem about a poet's unreconciled relationship with their father, or love lost, or an autumn's walk along a river while reflecting on the wheel of birth and death.
For all the lads made wild by desire who've written poems to lassies, it's unlikely the lass will be persuaded into your arms by wonderments and glamours of language--unless she is already so inclined. Did Shakespeare's sonnets "change" his situation? The speculation of such may fill library shelves but the proof wouldn't fill a thimble. If I write a poem about a race horse, does it run faster? If I write a poem about boats on the sea, am I trying to change the speed of waves or wind, or the color of the day in the water?
Pick any poem anywhere and tell me what it changes, objectively, in the world. Yes, our critic might say, but these poems are not expected to change anything. They rise from a deep place in the poet's psyche and are something the poet needs to say. And this is so different from political poetry? Is it possible that I might write a political poem, not because I have a calculated desire to change your mind about the President's foreign and domestic policies, but because it is something I need to say. If you want to come along for the ride, I saved you a seat. Today I might write a poem about my Grandmother, or my neighbor, or the way autumn leaves fall into a river. Because it is something I need to say. Tomorrow I might write a poem about the latest war. I don't see these poems necessarily coming from separate places. But what we do see is a split inside the generalized consciousness of American poetry. There is Poetry, over here, and over there, on the other side of the tracks, is political poetry, which isn't real poetry because--why? Because it is about political matters, which are transitory and not eternal to the human condition. Really. What do we know for certain is that political matters and their accompanying wars are as old as anything resembling civilization. What possibly could be more eternal to the human condition than the ancient struggle for freedom, justice and a decent world in the face of the grinding greed and murder machines of men who keep "politics" as a family business? But I digress.
As can be demonstrated with example after example, applying this same standard of logic to other kinds of poetry rapidly leads us into nonsense and exposes the hollowness at the core of this imitation of an argument. As stated above, the only way this argument can be sustained in the mouths of those meat puppets for ruling class values is to insist that political poetry is subject to different rules from that of "normal" poetry.
This view of Capital "P" Poetry sits in its rocking chair on ol' Massa's plantation porch and sips its mint julep. It wags its finger at the poets of the world and tells them: "You can't change anything, you've never changed anything, and you never will change anything. Don't even try." Apparently we're to leave change to the professionals, and we all know what a good job they've done of it.
But let's continue a little further, two steps forward and one step back. What if the same argument about change and political content in art were applied to painters and photographers? Those who documented poverty, abuse, injustice, and the realities of war should not have clicked their shutters or picked up a brush? Van Gogh should not have painted "The Potato Eaters", then, or Picasso painted "Guernica"? But, since those and many other paintings have now become commodity fetish objects worth large sums of money, the subject matter of visual art is rarely discussed, except in terms of critic-speak, a rarefied and specialized jabber designed to obfuscate more than illuminate.
In any case, what was Dylan Thomas trying to change when he wrote "Fern Hill"? Or what was Van Gogh trying to change when he painted "Starry Night"? Nothing, you say. They were trying to "feel" the world at a particular moment, to evoke, to summon, to render experience through the intensity of their medium. But political poetry is not permitted to do that? We are not permitted to have strong feelings about the world of human affairs we all share and to put those strong feelings into poetry? Poets write poems, and they are brought to them by powerful emotions: sometimes love, sometimes grief, sometimes outrage at injustice. Any artist, who longs to be a complete artist and a complete human being, wants to explore without restriction all those things in the world that engage their feelings. The political, a bitter salt though it may be, is still a part of our daily bread.
Again, the only way political poetry can be barred from participation in the cultural gestalt is to deny it equal status by assigning it different rules based solely on its content..
Finally, one is tempted to ask: if poetry changes nothing, what does? And what level of change would be acceptable?
And if not the words of poetry, what kinds of words? Journalism? Essays? Prayers? Letters? Books of political science, economic analysis, recent history? How quickly do words of any kind change anything? How many words have been tossed into the wind exposing the Bush Administration and yet it remains in power, unprosecuted? But should none of those words have been said? How many photographs, how many paintings, how much graffiti does it take to shake a sleeper awake? And is one outraged citizen enough, or is a beginning only made with a million?
Should we sign no petitions, then? Not stand up and speak at town meetings? What about throwing rocks at tanks or giving the finger to fighter jets? How about marches, and if so, how many marches does it take to bring down a corrupt government or bring equal rights to all? Do we need a number before we take the first step? Should we not hold up signs on the sidewalk outside a recruitment office or stand with strikers when the odds are against them? How about any act of defiance, personal or collective, against the grinding machinery of empire and privilege? Perhaps something like chaining oneself to an old growth tree or the chain link gate of a nuclear installation? What about burning a draft card or going to jail as a conscientious objector? What change does that cause? Perhaps detecting the effects of change is not something its detractors are equipped to measure. Perhaps all these things--even poems--could be a butterfly effect: a small wind on a leaf…that grows into a hurricane.
What's really being objected to in statements concerning political art and poetry's inability to—presto!—change the world is that attention is being called to something that certain people would rather not see. Light always offends those who would rather remain in the dark about what is done in their name, and they must find ways to dismiss its impact and its implications for themselves.
The term, "political poetry", is two words to describe a continent. Nothing accurately portrays every single possible gradation of feeling, tone, structure and language that so many excellent poets worldwide have brought to this wholly inadequate term over the last 150 years.
Having said that, some political poetry is about change: the demand for it, the hope for it, the longing for it. It could be seen as an act similar to magical conjuration, an attempt by the poet to will something into being through the alchemy of language, completely on the basis of their desire.
And so what? To call into power the names of change is a poet's right and needs justification to no one.
Can poetry change anything?
You might be surprised.

--Robert Edwards

Monday, October 17, 2005


First, my thanks to Al for the invitation to join the blog.

Since this is my first post here, I'll offer a few links to some of the better websites I've run across related to poetry, literature, art and culture, especially those with strong left-wing and/or working-class leanings.

Pemmican -- one of my favorite poetry magazines, a print annual for a number of years, now online. Great poetry (in the current issue section and in the archive), essays and articles, book reviews, and bits of news that might be of interest. Edited by poet Bob Edwards.

The November 3rd Club -- another online poetry magazine featuring and seeking politically progressive poetry. This one just started up within the past few months, and they're off to a good start so far.

Graphic Witness -- an excellent website of (mostly 20th century) politically progressive visual art. Includes work from various places around the world, and links to other great art websites.

Labor Arts -- another good website of working-class visual art, including historical material and exhibits of featured artwork.

The Marxist Internet Archive -- great online resource of general information and links on Communist, Socialist, and generally left-wing politics, ideas, history, literature and art. Though there's no such thing as true neutrality in the real and political world, this website doesn't push any one political slant too heavily within the overall range of left-wing politics, they cover a pretty wide spectrum.

The Modern American Poetry website at the U. of Illinois -- though at times a little on the dry academic side -- is in my opinion the best overall website for 20th century American poetry in general. It includes the best webpage devoted to the life and work of poet Tom McGrath, and is the only online source I've found for any substantial information on many of the Proletarian poets of the 30's and '40's. Each poet page in the site includes links to related material, and usually some sample poems.

Finally here, maybe I could be permitted to include a link to my own blog website, A Burning Patience. As I noted in the first post in the blog last spring, I'm using it to talk about poetry and related things. ("Related things" can obviously cover quite a range.) The blog also has a large number of links to other websites I've found: poetry, art, literature, politics, whatever I've found on the web that I think might be of interest to people.

That's all at the moment. Salud --

Sunday, October 16, 2005


From time to time, I or a few others may add to our commentary between issues. The hard drive on our computer recently ground to it's death and a new one has been installed. While much was lost, fortunatley much was saved. Meanwhile we are rebuilding.

Along with writing, our staff and writers are activists. I was pleased to meet up with Chris Butters, one of our longstanding supporters and contributors, at the anti-war rally in Washington D.C.. It was upon his suggestion that this section was added to our website. As for the rally, though ignored or played down by the corporate/state media, it was immense. I believe that it was close to 300,000 strong with people from every part of our country represented. It is gratifying to see so much sanity in our society. Even here, in Norfolk Virginia -- a conservative area, we had two busloads for the trip. We have since had a visit from Amy Goodman of Democracy Now and a packed theater to hear her followed by workshops on media activism. It appears that progressive activism is on the rise and that gives us hope for a way out of our present morass.

Along with commentary, we also hope to post book reviews and links. Recently I came across Swan's Commentary and thought I'd share that valuable resource. They provide reviews of progressive literature, though not poetry specifically. Other links to working class literature are welcome and some can already found on the main page of our website.