Poetry, Politics and Principled Uncertainty
"Have you ever heard of insect politics? Insects don't have politics. They're very... brutal. No compassion, no compromise. We can't trust the insect. I'd like to become the first... insect politician. Y'see, I'd like to, but..."
--Seth Brundle, The Fly (1986)
Last week's post got me thinking about poets as public voices, presuming to, or being presumed to, speak for those who can't or don't speak for themselves--in short, poets as political animals.
Because it always has been next to impossible to live on a poet's wages, poets have relied upon patronage in one form or another, and patrons by nature demand recognition--usually of the fawning and obsequious variety. The Medicis, the Pierpont Morgans, and the Hrothgars of the world didn't shell out the jewel-encrusted chamberpots to bards who composed accusatory critiques of plutocratic, neo-feudal economies. They were paying for Good Spin, and if they came off looking well-muscled, and heroic, so much the better.
It's rumored that sometime in the late 1970s, poets within the burgeoning Fine Arts Industrial Complex, repaired to a smoke-filled room and decided to de-fang political verse. It wasn't exactly banned, but from then on, socially conscious or activist poetry was deemed "topical," thus too perishable to entertain any pretensions toward "art."
There were a lot of valid or at least rational reasons behind the move, not the least of which was a desire to close the literal and figurative book on one of the more politically divisive eras in the country's history. I would argue that other factors were just as responsible, including the aggressive interrogation, if not the cold-blooded murder, of the trustworthy authorial voice, the fragmentation of what once were broad political coalitions into the narrowly-focused niche agendas of "identity politics," the professionalization of the art, and plain old disillusionment with a dollop of boredom mixed in. So for many years, a lot of well-credentialled noses were pointedly turned up at any writing with even a whiff of the political.
I think since 9/11 a new political strain has begun to emerge in American poetry. It's less ideological than before, more oriented toward consensus, and much less certain of its righteousness than its precursors.
The fact is that even overtly “political” poets—Carolyn Forche, Naomi Shihab Nye, Fady Joudah, for example—very rarely claim to be speaking for anyone but themselves. It seems to me that any poet worth the name, should be too clouded with qualms, too distrustful of dogma to launch into anything resembling tub-thumping agit-prop. And in the end, the frank admission of uncertainty might be the most valid, humane and politically productive response to the issues we face.
Below is a highly edited list of Harris County Public Library's collection of political poetry and criticism.
Collections and Anthologies
When Poetry Ruled the Streets: The French May Events of 1968 [electronic resource] / Andrew Feenberg and Jim Freedman
Against Forgetting: 20th Century Poets of Witness / Carolyn Fourche, ed.
The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni, 1968-1998 /
The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes /
History, Memory and the Literary Left: Modern American Poetry, 1935-1968 / John Lowney
The Faber Book of Political Verse / Tom Paulin, ed.
The Cantos of Ezra Pound /
Heckuva Job: More of the Bush Administrion in Rhyme / Calvin Trillin
Obliviously on He Sails: The Bush Administration in Rhyme / Calvin Trillin
Poetry of the People: Poems to the President 1929-1945 / Donald W. Whisenhunt
The Genesis of Ezra Pound's Cantos / Ronald Bush
Burns the Radical: Poetry and Politics in Late-Eighteenth Century Scotland
The Poetics of Fascism : Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Paul de Man / Paul Morrison
As always, comments, corrections, critiques, disagreements, sardonic rejoinders, etc. are encouraged and gladly accepted. -dc
ps: my apologies to Carolyn Forche who certainly deserves the accent over the e, but I couldn't make the program do it.
Photo Credit: Typiewriter! by ETHAROONI/ETHAN R.
Photo Credit: Suffragettes Posting Bills / courtesy of the Library of Congress and flickr.com The Commons