Saturday, January 20, 2007

Protest & Political Poetry

Politically motivated? Pissed off at the bad conditions of the world? Empathy for the sufferers, for the mothers of the disappeared? Concerned about social justice? Worried about those worse off than yourself?

Write a poem about it!

But wait: what happened to the tradition of protest music, protest song, political singer-songwriters? that whole generation from Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Cockburn, to the present? (Topic for another time: Industrial music is the new protest music: it addresses the same concerns and issues, while most of the singer/songwriters these day seem to be less political, more self-concerned; the same way the personal confessional lyric has come to dominate poetry.)

Still: write a poem, and speak your mind!

But wait: protest poetry isn't dead, not really. It never was. You could check out Poets Against the War online (I even had a poem on their website, when they first started out) You could check out the entire history of Arabic poetry, which is full of such poetry. War and death and suffering in the desert lands are nothing new.

The chief problem with political poems is that they are ephemeral, and topical: they rarely outlast the events which they are talking about, and they rarely rise above the fray to endure past those times in which they are written. They might still be read in later centuries, but usually only as an artistic footnote reflecting upon the historical chapter. A commentary on social justice by a dead protester.

Sometimes the most political poetry that you can write is something that endures beyond the news of the hour, and lasts for a good long time. Walt Whitman, for example, comes to mind, with his Lincoln poems, his Civil War poems. When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom'd endures because it is not a short-term angry protest-poem, but because it is a poem of universal mourning, a meditation on death, and an evocation of eternity. Most political poems, especially protest-poems, fall far short of that mark, because they are written out of short-term outrage rather than deep, lasting, human experience.

Sometimes the most political poetry you can write is poetry that points out how the earth endures, despite everything horrible that humans do to it, and to each other.

Even otherwise excellent poets will often write crap, when they turn to political/protest (outrage) poetry. It's not the poets that are at fault, usually, rather the subject matter itself tends to make the poems topical and ephemeral. Even some of the more political poems by Browning, Whitman, Hopkins, Sandburg and Frost, just don't stand the test of time. Protest is a subject matter that inherently tends to be difficult to pull off as a good, enduring poem. It's as if many poets and readers think, given the subject of the poem, the craft of the poem ought to be given a free pass. This is very parallel to poets and readers thinking that therapy-poems ought to be given a free pass, as if a poet who writes about abuse or rape or torture should be soothed rather than critiqued.

It's almost as if the critical faculty goes out the window, when the subject matter is political. At the worst extreme, political correctness gone wrong tells us that we dare not offer critique of the Other's artistic product; although some of the reasons behind that viewpoint may be sound (acceptance of diversity, the innate fairness of wanting to meet the Other in an arena of understanding, whether the arena be one of gender, culture, sexuality, race, whatever), taken to its silliest extreme, that otherwise wise stance or equality and fairness denies any possibility of criticism on purely literary grounds.

It seems to me that many political poems seem to be written with ambition: that they will noticed, that their voices will be heard, that they will survive the judgment of history. Think about it: it takes a certain amount of necessary ego, even necessary hubris, to imagine that anything one writes as a personal protest poem will survive the test of time. Ego is not inherently bad in itself, but neither is ego-inflation the same as self-confidence. There's a difference between mature self-confidence and raw ambition.

The irony is that most political poems don't survive the judgment of history. Of course one is perfectly free to write whatever one wants to write, for whatever reason, whenever, however, whoever, whatever. One is also free to believe that one is in fact contributing to the course of history by using one's art to make comments about that historical course. One might be right, and one might be wrong. I don't think one can know, in advance.

When I look at the art and poems that have survived the test of time, whether or not their creators ever intended them to is almost irrelevant. You never know, and you can't. I'm not saying that poets should write with the test of time in mind. I'm not saying that at all. Poets shouldn't think about the judgment of history, when they are writing, because they can't do anything about it. Not only that, worrying about the verdict of history can skew up what one does write: it can lead to self-censorship, but it can also lead towards personal ego-fulfillment, rather than about serving one's muse.

I'm all for artists using their creative voices to persuade, cajole, entice, subvert, teach, learn, practice, invoke, etc. I am less sanguine about artists using their creative voices to castigate, lecture, vilify, control, harangue, etc.

Most political poetry, by its very nature, is pedantic, polemic, and lecturing. That is another good reason it tends to have a short shelf-life.

But if you wrote a poem about the redwoods that makes people think about them, love them, and want to conserve their habitat, that might become an enduring political/social poem. Perhaps more enduring than a topical political poem, because the environment is a bigger, more enduring issue itself. There can be a ripple effect: if you photographed or painted them in all kinds of light and weather, your artwork might touch a few who are new to wanting to save them; the same could happen with a poetry of natural existence, such as Robinson Jeffers'.

I think that's how real, enduring change happens. I don't think real political change happens from the top down, but from the bottom up. It can be slow, and apparently indirect, but when you change someone's ideas about their place in the universe, you have changed their lives, and their zeitgeist, and their politics. I think that's far more enduring than who's President right now, or who's in Congress. It's the Native American idea of stewarding the earth so that it will still be there to be lovingly inhabited by the seventh generation. I think art can make a difference in this particular arena of political action, in a way that the topically-political cannot. Rather, the topical, Washington D.C. Beltway-level of the political status quo is what I think poetry can have no impact on, because those people in D.C. don't read poetry anyway, or really care about the arts, or think they mean anything.

The philosophy of change and action at the grass-roots level is something the D.C. insiders always discount, and underestimate. (It's one reason I can never take them very seriously.) Grass-roots action is the philosophy behind eco-friendly publishers such as Sierra Club Books; to be honest, those earlier books, especially under David Brower's editorship, really did make a difference to a lot of people, and helped ignite the conservation movement, influencing such legislation as the Clean Air Act. (Which Nixon signed into law, one might recall.) I collect old Sierra Club editions, and treasure them. I have several books of photos by Elliott Porter, a great nature photographer; I also have been reading Not Man Apart, which is a book of photos accompanying the poetry of Robinson Jeffers. It's an excellent edition, and in some ways a better introduction to his occasionally challenging poetry, than are his own purely poetry books.

Art about conservation is inherently more enduring than art about war or politics, because the earth is more enduring than nations. Stewardship of the earth is an ethical value I think worth promoting, and is more likely to effect long-term political change, from the grass-roots, than the growing body poems about the current war—and there have always been poems about the current war, because there has always been a current war.

I should point out at this juncture that there is often a conflation between "war poetry" and "political poetry," which is ultimately misleading. War poetry is poetry about war, or against war, or about the horror of war. One keeps returning to Wilfred Owen's famous statement, My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. His poems are about individual, specific moments, with specific characters and specific moments. They are true to human experience, specific rather than general, reportorial rather than ideological. That's why they're memorable poems. They're not vague philosophical generalities, they're not abstract, they're specific. Strange Meeting, one of his masterpieces, is all about how the universal emerges from the specific:

. . . 'Strange friend,' I said, 'here is no cause to mourn.'
'None,' said that other, 'save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here. . . .

I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now. . .'

Generalities are not what make a poem universal and enduring. Many poets will likely agree that what makes poems endure is the way they evoke the personal and the specific in the reader, almost somatically or empathically, if you will. The main problem with political poetry, again, is the tendency to make Grand Philosophical Statements—most of which tend to be familiar to the point of being clichés, abstract to the point of being disembodied, ideological rather than ethical, ineffective simply because they are clichés. Politicians use soundbytes to distill their messages—poets can do much more than that, and probably ought to at least make an attempt.

War poetry is as Owen indicates: it's reportorial, it's about pity, and it's often a response to the experience, and the horror. (Keith Douglas, Steve Murphy, Michael Casey, other "war poets," most of them vets exemplify this. Some of them even survived.)

Political protest poetry, I have noticed over many years, is not often written by veterans; it is often written by those on the home front. (There's no judgment here, just an observation.) Political protest poetry, which is what most think of as "political poetry," is often about disagreeing with those in political power at the moment: but it often reads as a screed, a diatribe, a broadsheet, a polemic, a sermon, a heckling, and not much as poetry. That's fine, that's its purpose. (If you assume that I'm saying that all political protest anti-war poetry is a priori bad and wrong, go back and read what I said again: I said, it's often not very good, and it often fails to endure past the topical moment.) The purpose of screed, diatribe, protest, polemic, and propaganda is to change peoples' minds, change their opinions so that they agree with your own. Convince them of the truth of your own viewpoint. Yelling at them only makes them clamp down and ossify their opinions. If you really want to change someone's mind, cajole them, entice them, get them to walk a mile in someone else's shoes—get them to think of something outside their usual circle of awareness, get them to appreciate the viewpoints held by the Other. One of the best ways to do this is through a poetry of embodiment—rather than a poetry of ideas.

Again, I refer the reader to Robinson Jeffers; he embodies both aspects of this issue, in different poems. His best poems succeed because they are specific, evocative, full of fresh imagery; they convince one to love and care for the earth simply by making us fall in love with it all over again. His worst poems, among them his most overtly political poems, and his most screed-like, tend to be built on ideas rather than images, abstractions rather than story, satiric devices (his much-maligned and often-misunderstood ideas about "Inhumanism," for example) rather than personal contact with the reader, and so forth. His work is an interesting case study of the best and the worst aspects of political/polemic poetry. Jeffers was a WWI veteran, and his experiences in that war colored the rest of his life and work.

Good poetry must be true to the experience it communicates. It needs to come from the heart, yes, but it needs to include the head and the hands in the mix: intellect, empathy, and artifice combined.

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Blogger THE SCRIBE said...

I like what ya did with this blog. I have some poetry that you might be interested in. There's over 50 ,but I think 10 are directed at what you

1:34 PM  
Blogger Alan said...

Here's an essay on a young poet's journey through craft and the lessons learned along the way. Please read it at

8:58 PM  

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