Frances Densmore with a Blackfoot chief, Mountain Chief, during a 1916 phonograph recording session for the Bureau of American Ethnology
Poetry is a permeating, honest voice that explicates peoples’ tragedies. OK, well, I’m not sure. Poetry has a medicinal purpose for the individual mind. Hopefully I’ll be updating it more regularly. Poetry can do everything. Poetry can’t do anything. The fact that no one has commented on this pretty much sums it up.
—Mash-up of online posts about political poetry
Lately, there are a lot of poets around. I have never read or heard so many new poets. On any given night there are dozens of poetry events in New York City—readings, performances, parties—and not everyone in the house is another poet! Among these younger poets, the air is thick with a heightened sociopolitical awareness. Put the two together and it would seem likely that we are brimming over with a new political poetry. Maybe, but not so fast.
Political poetry is not political activism, even though many poets are also political activists. The use of political subject material doesn’t allow for a free pass on the hard work of artistic invention and keeping in tune to how we absorb or critique our culture. There is no big mystery to this—a poet who is open to contemporary ideas in art and poetry, and who has studied past movements and tendencies, has a pretty good grounding for how to pursue new ways of writing. There are many rich traditions to become aware of, to steal from, to reject. Still, within these many traditions, a poetics that readily accepts established poetic forms and simply infuses these forms with current political content suggests that political poetry is a kind of stagnant genre—universal, unchanging, detached from the particularities of the contemporary moment. There are many platforms for which a politically engaged writer can express himself, but if one chooses to make poems and wants to participate in a dialogue about the sociopolitical impact of poetry, then there are contemporary aesthetic concerns to take on. Nevertheless, one might justly ask: How is that “political”?
How I define “political” poetry in the US is different from how Wikipedia defines it, but the relatively brief history of American poetry serves as a good starting point. For the past 100 or so years, any debate about poetry’s political impact has fallen into one of two categories: (1) inventive poetic forms or (2) direct political content. I would argue that the spectrum of possibilities today is so nuanced and varied that this dividing line blurs to the point of collapse. To some degree, we’re in a moment where the two sides meet more often and fruitfully, but more on this later.
Examples of this first category include experiments with poetic forms such as fragmentation, performance, genre blurring, cut-and-paste sampling, proceduralism, conceptualism, etc. Examples of the second category, such as free verse lyric poetry, typically use more recognizable forms—they look and sound like, well, poetry. Here are two brief illustrations—one that highlights formal invention and another that is driven by sociopolitical content. First, the opening lines from Gertrude Stein’s “A Substance in a Cushion”(1914):
The change of color is likely and a difference a very little difference is prepared. Sugar is not a vegetable.
There’s no direct political content here, yet, within just a handful of words, the text calls up issues of feminism and a WWI-fractured society. Stein’s use of language—unconventional grammar, floating signifiers, non-poetic lines, strange non sequiturs—represented, at the time, a radical break from past poetic traditions. Stein’s use of these inventive strategies placed her in conversation with the Cubists and other progressive artists and thinkers of her day. By inventing and imagining open possibilities in poetry and rejecting past traditions, these choices represented a political act.
Compare the Stein example with the closing lines of Robert Haas’s poem “Between the Wars” (1989), reflecting on WWII:
Fifty freight cars from America, full of medicine
and the latest miracle, canned food.
The war is over. There are unburied bones
in the fields at sun-up, skylarks singing,
starved children begging chocolate on the tracks.
Unlike Stein, Haas directly emphasizes the sociopolitical subject matter and his compassion for the subject. The form of the poem is recognizable as traditional verse. The repetition of the alliteration of the f, b, and s sounds offer a predictable rhythm that satisfies the reader’s expectation. Haas, a former US poet laureate, prides himself on his political engagement; his direct language and conventional technique seem to speak directly to the reader. His intention is not to disrupt or complicate his compassion for the subject within poetic form. Which one is more political? I think the better question is which one has a greater impact over the long haul: Is a poem more radically political because it directs the reader to a political views and social conditions, or because it radically changes the way the reader thinks about the world?
So what makes formally inventive poetry “political”? Poetry—especially the history of avant-garde American poetry—is a dialogue, or even an argument. The invention of new poetic forms challenges old ideas about poetry. These radical shifts away from accepted forms of poetry create gaps that can be either generative to poets interested in new ways of working, or disenfranchising to those who find these new forms exclusive or less useful than the established forms. But contrary to those who might argue that these new forms are simply new in order to be new, I believe that these inventive forms align poetry with forward-thinking movements in the other arts and society at large. If these gaps created by new ideas and new forms in poetry offer a significantly compelling dialogue, then poets and their readers will take this up. This opening between the old and new can be an exciting territory to mine. It’s an open space that generates context building, new works, rebuttals, and new terms for poets to test and define themselves with or against. It’s a place of the unknown, where poets and readers can bring their own intelligence and start to define a new direction for poetry and, ultimately, society.
These dialogs contribute to building a network of ideas for poets who, then, might participate in an arena of like-minded ideas with other poets, artists, thinkers, etc. These communities give poetry a place in the art-making culture, instead of poetry retreating to its own corner of cultural exchange as it has done so often in the past century. For any art form to reflect or shape the ideas of the day is a political contribution that can’t easily be minimized. But in order to reflect (or document or contradict or expose) the structures of today’s society, poetry must move forward. In the history of the US, this is what poetry can do; this is what poetry has done.
There is a myth that politically oriented, content-driven poetry, presented straightforwardly, has the most useful social impact. In this view, poetry delegates itself as the culture’s moral barometer and watchdog of bad or unfair governmental policy—it fulfills its civic duty. As art historian Claire Bishop writes in her book Artificial Hells (addressing participatory art, but equally relevant to contemporary poetry):
For one sector of artists, curators and critics, a good project appeases a superegoic injunction to ameliorate society; if social agencies have failed, then art is obliged to step in. In this schema, judgments are based on a humanist ethics, often inspired by Christianity. What counts is to offer ameliorative solutions, rather than the exposure of contradictory social truths. For another sector of artists, curators and critics, judgments are based on a sensible response to the artists’s work, both in and beyond its original context. In this schema, ethics are nugatory, because art is understood continually to throw established systems of value into question, including questions of morality; devising new languages with which to represent and question social contradiction is more important.
In this myth of accessibility, who is the audience for this “ameliorative” poetry? The general reading public has little interest in poetry whether it is difficult or direct. Poetry tends to get disseminated in other ways, largely through dialogues with other writers, artists, and thinkers—it is a small but influential readership that tends to grow as the conversation also grows. It’s a trickle-out culture as opposed to the trickle-down, top-down authority of mainstream culture. But even in this smallness, there is a long history of modern and postmodern inventive poetry that has significantly shaped society’s relationship to expression, imagination, documentation, consciousness, etc. In many of these historical movements, both domestic and imported, the practitioners have been politically active even though the content of their work has not been centered on societal amelioration, but rather on inventive forms and strategies operating as an insurrection to the norms of mainstream culture.
The good news is that we have seen examples where both political subject matter and inventive forms coexist. Notably, in the 80s both L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry and slam poetry serve as complex examples, in very different registers. More singular examples, of course, can be found throughout the 20th century. Today, some of the most formally inventive poetry directly culls socio-political content. The conversation, or argument, that interests me most in today’s contemporary poetry exposes the radical shifts in our language landscape via new media. Often these works repurpose social media language or mimic functions available to us through new language-based technologies. Here are a couple of examples among hundreds of possibilities: An excerpt from Steven Zultanski’s book-length poem Agony, and an excerpt from Trisha Low’s The Compleat Purge.
Inventive and challenging strategies for the manipulation of language—found or original—will continue to expand and contradict the language landscape, but only if poetry continues to be open to new forms and ideas for how poetry gets made—not just why. For sure, these conversations that ignite new poetic forms won’t stand still. New arguments continue to evolve and complicate how we document our moment. This keeps poetry contemporary. This is what’s good for poetry; this is what’s political for poetry.
Robert Fitterman's most recent book is No, Wait. Yep. Definitely Still Hate Myself (Ugly Duckling Presse).