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Making Space For Politics in Poetry

By David Chorlton

The George W. Bush presidency serves daily to challenge our perceptions of this as a literate, let alone literary, country. Although terrorism has eclipsed the national sport of tracking "Bushisms" in recent months, we cannot forget the punishment the English language has taken since the inauguration. It is hard to imagine much poetry being read around the White House and in a country where hostility toward the arts is too often exploited for political ends it is equally hard to believe that poetry has much impact on political life. While poets and readers frequently look for poetry and politics to overlap, politicians rarely invoke poetry. This makes perfect sense to me, but I have a low opinion of political language and expect nothing other than for the arts to be conspicuously ignored by those in high office who are suspicious of any activity that flourishes in the hands of creative and sometimes irreverent individuals.

Interest in poets with a decidedly political approach is generally higher than that in others. Carolyn Forche's book,The Country Between Us, sold more copies than most poetry collections. Laurence Ferlinghetti's continued popularity testifies to an appetite for poetry that refers directly to big issues. Wendell Berry's work matters for what he has to say about our relationship with nature and technology. Make your own list from here; Martin Espada, Robert Bly, Margaret Atwood and others have all used their language skills to illuminate areas otherwise clouded by the exploitive rhetoric of public relations and political speech writers. What do they offer that elected representatives do not? Certainly passion. Each time Ari Fleischer delivers a message in his deadpan voice he drains vital events of their urgency. John McCain is masterful at keeping his voice under strict control as he speaks of possible military intervention. We, the public, on the other hand, crave more than understatement when confronted with injustice and war.

Should someone comment that "Your poetry is quite political," listen carefully to the tone of voice. This could be a compliment, translating into "I'm really glad you brought that up; it is just what I feel," or just a backhanded insult as in "You are spoiling your work by bringing ideology into it." I have heard both, and found both to be missing the point that political content comprises only one of the many levels at which a poem operates. My conclusion, after reflecting on this state of affairs, is that external circumstances rather than my intentions dictate what is or is not political in a piece of writing. After all, we live in an age that has made oral sex a political issue so how are we to categorize any activity? A poem about a tree may once have been no more than that, but trees today are the basis for heated argument, especially when Spotted Owls live in them.

I am fascinated by commentary that lies behind the apparent innocence of writing. The Czech poet Miroslav Holub wrote a poem about a man on a cliff who curses the sea, humorously chastising it with invective to no avail. Finally he climbs down to the beach and strokes it as if it were a little dog and then contentedly goes his way. The story comes across as less trite when we consider the regime under which Holub had to operate. Novels were written heavy handedly on manual typewriters with several layers of carbon paper and passed around subversively. The regime had no appreciation for anything but the glorification of the leaders and confirmation of how well everything was working under communism. Suddenly the sea becomes the force of a government out of control and the man in the poem makes his peace by befriending it. In contrast, Allen Ginsberg's approach was confrontational when he wrote in America, "Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb." Here are two distinct roles for poets, those of observer and reformer. Europeans seem to tend to the former while Americans generally bring activism to their poetry and push for change. I prefer not to make an argument for one of these roles over the other, but I still can't help but admire the subtlety with which Holub and others spun informative metaphors.

Perhaps Europeans are permanently disillusioned with politicians and know better than to expect them to improve. We see Americans as incurably optimistic, ever trusting in democracy to make the world better. Even though two decades in the United States have not made an American of me, I can't help but admire the spirit with which committed writers stick to their course and find myself stretched between philosophies. Neither in England, where I grew up, nor in Austria, where I lived later, does optimism define the way of life. We prefer to describe the state of affairs as it is rather than to paint ideal visions. We like music in a minor key and cry into our beer. Leonard Cohen's melancholy tone qualifies him for honorary European citizenship, and his popularity across the ocean testifies to our liking for thoughtful sorrow. I have been away from Europe too long to know how much or how little impact poets have on current affairs there now. Shelley's view of poets as the unacknowledged legislators of the world still strikes me as an anachronism rooted in a romantic age when people read more than entertainment magazines and the daily newspaper. Nonetheless, we have chosen our medium and must deal with it as well as we can.

Nadezda Mandelstam's book about her experiences and those of her husband, Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, brings out the major difference between totalitarian and democratic systems. In the former the ideas of an individual are valued and therefore stifled at inception should they be critical of the prevailing power. Osip eventually died because of a poem that was heard by a dozen people in a private gathering, never mind its being published. Someone betrayed the trust of a private reading of a poem describing Stalin in uncomplimentary terms, and Mandelstam went first into exile, and later to his death. Such was the paranoia of the dictatorship that ideas were stifled at inception. Our system values groups of people that translate into voting blocks, and therefore sees polls as more threatening than poetry.

The opinions of the individual, no matter how scathing, are not viewed as threatening because they are easily countered. It may well be the democratic yearnings of the United States that create such difficulties for poets intent on taking on the status quo, yet the relative success in terms of visibility of poets whose work addresses more than the personal testifies to an appetite for issues addressed in lyrical terms. There was a brief flurry of poems, read over Public Radio for instance, as a temporary seriousness descended on the country and it sought comfort and substance, but talk of a nation united flourished as well and that is what disturbs me as we move on with a shadow draped across any voice of dissent, regardless of its eloquence.