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Inaugural Forum: Poetry and Politics

May 7, 2010

Greetings WWP readers! My name is Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, and I am the Forums Director here at We Write Poems. I am an amateur poet and poetry lover. I am also terribly interested in the internet’s capacity to bring people together and create new avenues for discussion. Thus, I am thrilled to be helping to host forums for WWP!

The idea here is to pick a topic and use the comments section as a discussion area. Obviously I have some ideas about topics that are interesting to me, but we are a community here, and my job is to facilitate. So, if you have a discussion idea, send us an email with the subject “Forum suggestion” (look for a link in the left column), and if appropriate, I’ll create a space for you. This could range from a specific idea you want to tackle (poetry about yoga) to connecting with people who have shared interests (for example, members of and/or people interested in the African diaspora).

To kick things off, our premier topic is Poetry and Politics. Adrienne Rich wrote in “Blood, Bread and Poetry: The Location of the Poet”:

But there were many voices then, as there are now, warning the North American artist against “mixing politics with art.” I have been trying to retrace, to delineate, these arguments, which carry no weight for me now because I recognize them as the political declarations of privilege. There is the falsely mystical view of art that assumes a kind of supernatural inspiration, a possession by universal forces unrelated to questions of power and privilege or the artist’s relation to bread and blood . . .

We are told that political poetry, for example, is doomed to grind down into mere rhetoric and jargon, to become one-dimensional, simplistic, vituperative; that in writing “protest literature” . . . we sacrifice the “universal”; that in writing of injustice we are limiting our scope, “grinding a political axe.” (1984)

From right: Adrienne Rich, Meridel Lesuer, and Audre Lorde, all woman writers of a political persuasion

More recently, poets have come together on Facebook to respond through poetry to recent changes in the law in Arizona.

So, WWP. Where does poetry sit with respect to politics? Does the political appear in your poetic? Do you disagree with Adrienne? Strongly agree with her? Feel free to share links to your poems, introduce other poets, etc. The idea here is to have a dialogue and see where it goes.

Before we get started, let me lay down the one ground rule (so far) for the forums: please be respectful! Not everyone is going to agree, and that’s okay. If you have any concerns, please let us know. Thanks for participating!

EDIT: A commenter wrote in with a very good question about the length of comments. At this stage, we don’t have a policy on that. Write as much as you wish! If you feel uncomfortable doing so, we love the idea of posting a longer response on your own blog and linking to it here. You should also feel free to post here and at your home blog!

  1. May 7, 2010 8:13 am

    I’ve dabbled in a little political poetry, and when I do, I have the usual worries about sounding didactic. There’s also the problem of writing about an issue that some might not understand, for example a recent poem on the Arizona situation (thanks for that fb link) didn’t make much sense to my friends overseas. I do think there is good and bad political poetry, just like everything else. A couple days ago I was at a reading by Jack Hirschman, the former poet laureate of San Francisco, and he made the point that for him the lyrical and the political are one and the same. He also cited Neruda, who had his political side. For me, I think a poet writes about/from his/her experience, and if you steep yourself in politics it’s inescapable that something political will manifest itself. And just like other subjects, if you do it well, it will have subtlety and power.

  2. May 7, 2010 9:00 am

    If you look at the word political in its broadest sense(s), then yes: Every poem is political. Every decision we make in every poem comes from who we are, and who we are comes directly from our culture. The “us” of us is saturated in our culture, and culture is driven and defined by that which is political, in one way or another.

    (That’s a strong statement I am sure others will disagree with, citing the nature argument and the fact that culture is about more than politics, even in the broadest sense. I always get worried when I deploy “to-be” verbs. Such certainty behind words such as “is” and “was.”)

    Sam Hamill says, “Even how you break a line is political.” I like to think about that statement a lot, what’s behind it. The very fact that we have time to write is related to politics’ conjoined twin, economics. To have time means we have at least enough money to have time to write. We have some degree of privilege. We, at least here in the United States, are able and willing to write pieces that have no “use” and no “value.” I mean that literally, as in we don’t get paid for what we write and it’s not like we’re making bowls to eat out of. We do them to do them, not for our gods (although sometimes for our gods) and not for our rituals (although writing poems can be and often is its own ritual) but because we can, quite literally, afford to write them.

    And when we say we can’t afford to, we are not taking into consideration the millions of people on this planet who live on less than $2 a day, or the millions in this country without homes. Our measure for what it means to truly be poor is off. We let the word fall from our lips without due consideration.

    I am just sick over SB1070. I do see poets and artists coming together in creation and protest. Some of these responses can turn into a political statement that loses something in terms of the artistic side. It’s hard to write about issues. But then again, it’s hard to write about anything we care about, in the end. It’s just plain hard to write.

    A couple of days ago, writer Jessamyn Smyth shared a poem on Facebook titled “Spring 2010.” It is in response to SB1070, with overtones of the Gulf oil spill, or at least of oil in general, in terms of the imagery used. It’s an absolutely remarkable piece — one I will remember for the rest of my life. If you friend her on Facebook, you will be able to see the poem. Or you can private message her and ask to see it.

    There’s no end to what poets can do with out voices, and her piece is an example of that.

    Thank you for this thread and the mention of Adrienne Rich, whom I love. These forums are a wonderful space to communicate about important topics. I think it’s good to have the forum posts front and center as blog entries rather than tucked away. It gives them more space and visibility, and it allows you to craft an introduction to the issue that people can respond to. Forum threads tended to get lost on Read Write Poem, and the interface between the groups and the forums was awkward. I like the approach you’re taking here.

    • May 7, 2010 10:28 am

      My albeit brief for the moment response. Thank you Dana for so thoughtful an addition to this topic!

      Personally I tend to be not very “political” in what I write, but you are also right, who I am, what I write, is informed by my culture, my politics, whether in literal word or not.

      My own poem mentor of sorts, William Stafford, was himself nothing timid of boldly yet quietly taking his stance within this world, this life, including with these “little words” we write. His own early adulthood in fact was as a Conscientious Objector, during WWII – and not a time when that was looked upon very favorably at all. His whole life, as a man, a father, a poet, was in that stance, and unafraid to be the person he was.

      Should we ever wish any less for ourselves!

      Thank you too Dana for your comments about groups, forums and posting on this site. We do it first out of simple necessity for the nature of this WP blog, but moreover, I agree. I’d like an equality here between all that is offered and available. Sometimes simplicity is its own reward.

  3. May 7, 2010 11:11 am

    I agree and disagree with Adrienne Rich. I agree that there is no reason or right to keep art and politics from mixing. It takes courage to take openly express your passionate political views. I mention passion because in my estimation, art is birthed in passion, whether it’s for love requited or lost, or the ant that started on your picnic sandwich before you could.

    Where I disagree is the point she makes that there is no mystical aspect to art. There is. Perhaps not supernatural, but surely beyond concrete, rational understanding. And I think that’s why some people try to warn against mixing art with politics, two entities that matter and can influence deeply, beyond words.

    I think a gifted artist must come to realize at some point that within their art is the power to stir men’s souls who let in. It’s just true–from what I’ve been graced to experience.

    Great topic, Chanda!

    • May 8, 2010 2:06 am

      Poetic aside @ I love that your “passion” includes that ant!

  4. May 7, 2010 4:44 pm

    Some of the strongest poems I’ve read have been political if we define political in it’s broadest sense. I consider many of Audre Lourde’s
    poems political. Many poets who have lost their country or feel disenfranchised write powerful and poignant poems. I understand more about what is was/ is like to live in some areas of the world when I read the poetry written by their poets. Many of the poems are political.

    Rich said,”The personal is political .”

    My issue with some political poems is the tendency to be didactic.

    • May 8, 2010 2:19 am

      Yes, passion will rise where it does. And it’s good when it allows us to see our larger selves (beyond any boundaries). And it is also right to write from where you really live (I don’t mean geography). If that’s part politic, then so be it. When a poem (or anything) expresses the true essence of being human, being alive, that’s right and that’s a right place for a poem to be.

      And also yes, didactic just ain’t much fun.

      Yet it can be a bit of a delicate edge between the two?

  5. May 7, 2010 6:47 pm

    Punk once was a reaction to what people perceived as junk around them. Then they grew to see the junk even further afield, engaging in politics. Then they grew to be junkified as a target market, and the politics withered away.

    Some art is tied to politics. Without a little breath of even the personal politic, art has respirators forced in all the wrong places. Then it’s lead down above the street by a team of operators to announce the beginning of the eternal purchase season.

    I don’t see how to avoid politics in some form. If I’m pulled towards politics, though, I try to cast words around what I think are the core issues and avoid most current details. Unless I’m very, very angry. Although then I burn out before even finishing (poetry, prose, or otherwise).

  6. Chanda permalink
    May 8, 2010 5:06 am

    The discussion about being didactic is an interesting one. One of my earliest memories of feeling marginalized in an academic setting was during the study of poetry in my 11th grade English class. My high school was very diverse, but as is typically the case, as you got close to honors level and into it, things became more homogeneous. I will never forget the day when we read some Maya Angelou, and several of my white classmates complained that her poetry was too plain-spoken, too didactic and wasn’t worth reading unless she was willing to say things in a more complicated (apparently code for poetic) way. My best friend and I along with the other two Black students in the class (4 out of about 35) were horrified. But we also felt like it would be hard to say something without getting pummeled by the larger group, so we stayed silent.

    Anyway, I think the point that Neil raises about where that line is is a very interesting one. Who gets to define what is didactic? Are there dangers associated with that label?

    I guess a broader question is how do our ideas about what is and is not poetic relate to our relative privilege in the world? How do we decide when privilege is playing a role in our evaluation and when it is merely personal taste and aesthetic? Can those things be separated?

    • May 8, 2010 8:42 pm

      Thanks for reminding us of the
      relationship between privlledge and race/ or class or gender.


  7. Irene permalink*
    May 8, 2010 4:55 pm

    I haven’t yet write political poetry, not overtly. But it seems to me that if you write an anti-war poem for instance, it is only when the poem still expresses the essence of being human as Neil puts it, that it succeeds eg. Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth is not being didactic yet is steeped in a certain political stance.

    Rich has expressed that “poetry and politics both have to do with description and with power. And so, of course, does science.” And she makes the observation that the three have over the centuries “become separated–poetry from politics, poetic naming from scientific naming, an ostensibly “neutral” science from political questions, “rational” science from lyrical poetry–nowhere more than in the United States over the past fifty years.” (Adrienne Rich, What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics, 1993). Fodder for thought. Since making ‘the personal is the political” statement, she has continued that voice that spoke for poetry as a form of navigating through personal and public histories which does not render us incoherent and passively engaged with mass marketing campaigns.

  8. May 8, 2010 8:34 pm

    Good point about who and how didactic is defined.

    A number of years ago I was at a writing conference where Lucille Clifton was the invited poet. When she read her poetry the words carried an enormous power. I also heard Audre Lorde read her poems. Two powerful black women with completely different ways of writing poetry .They both wrote political poems–

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