She is a writer and educator from Miami, Florida. Her first collection of poetry, Shapeshifting (Spire Press, 2006), was the winner of the 2005 Spire Press Poetry Prize. She has a second collection, The Stones (Finishing Line Press, 2006), and has been published in numerous journals and anthologies. She teaches at St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens.
On Poetry and Politics
I’ve lately become obsessed with something I read in Very Like a Whale, something British poet Tony Williams said in an interview when asked about the role of the poet in the world: “It’s very difficult for a poet to write well in the light of a perceived responsibility to engage with matters outside the poem – whether these are political, historical, moral, theoretical, aesthetic, etc – because as soon as you have a conscious desire to do so, you’re serving two masters.” I was reading Ann Fisher-Wirth’s Dream Cabinet, in which she—easily—slips back and forth from the lyrical to the political, and Williams’s words seemed both to fit and not to fit in an apt way.
Williams expresses the thought clearly, but it’s not an original one. In fact, he is speaking to a debate that has been going on since Plato first expelled the poets, possibly before. In another interview, one of my favorite poets, Martín Espada, speaks to the other side:
The very same people who are lamenting the loss of literacy in this society oftentimes turn around and embrace the very sort of poetry which seems guaranteed to render poetry irrelevant… To embrace that which is least likely to bring an audience to poetry. There are many critics, for example, who insist that poetry and politics are incompatible… If you examine the reasoning behind that argument, what you see basically is the position that it’s difficult to do well. Well, poetry in general is difficult to do well. Love poetry is particularly difficult to do well, yet I do not hear anyone suggesting that therefore love and poetry are incompatible . . . .
I think that a poem can and should have political content, that it doesn’t therefore mean that it will be propagandistic or polemic… When I write a political poem, I do so from the intimate vantage point of individual human beings. When I write these political poems, I’m writing about people I know or people they know. I am writing about family, friends, lovers, community, clients. The notion is to give politics or history a human face.
What are we to make of this semi-eternal debate over the role of the poet? Espada begins above with the fact that we—we poets, we educators, we readers—“ [lament] the loss of literacy in this society . . . and embrace the very sort of poetry which seems guaranteed to render poetry irrelevant.” Another favorite poet of mine, David Bottoms, when asked what the single greatest mistake young poets make was, complained that “so many poems I see by young writers, actually so many I see period, just don’t have a sense of necessity about them. They don’t communicate a compelling need to have been written. Either they memorialize some very uneventful event or they try to express some vague feeling the poet has had. They just never develop into art that carries the weight of necessity, of significance.” In a particularly incendiary piece on the appointment of Philip Levine as Poet Laureate, Anis Shivani complained that “the quality of poetry being produced by American poets regularly awarded the highest prizes in the land and recognized as the equals of past masters is not meant to last this pathetic moment of self-absorption and lassitude,” that, of course, he goes on to attribute to the lyrical tradition, especially the confessional poets (most disturbingly, the women—but I digress), whose “very project,” he claims, “is to participate–as the front guard of a regressive political elite–in the annihilation of common decency at all levels.” He continues to argue that “their poetry is garish, troublingly content-free, indecorous, and emotionless. Readers are smart not to read this trash,” as it would “diminish” them as “reader[s] and as . . . human being[s].”
I’ve had the conversation with people from other cultures, from Iran, from Cuba, from Haiti. In many other cultures, poety holds a central place in its citizenry’s imaginary. Josh Dzieza, in an article for The Daily Beast, reports that people in Egypt chant the poetry of Abul Qasim al-Shabi, while protesters in Iraq stage readings of Tunisian poets in support.
Is is possible that the move toward more lyrical and confessional poetry is responsible for the alienation Americans and other Westerners feel from poetry? Of course, Americans have a lot less to be chanting in protest about. Even the most vitriolic of the Occupy protests or the recent efforts on behalf of women’s health issues can’t compare to the situation in Egypt. Are Americans unmoved by poetry because American poetry has become apolitical, or has American poetry become apolitical because Americans already were?
In my own classroom, I try to give my students a choice of poetic styles. They read Louise Glück alongside Martín Espada, and they can write what they please—as long as it’s good. How do we define that, you might ask. For one thing, it is important to recognize the possibilities of bad—very, very bad—political poetry. It is easy to become so enamored of the message that we neglect to study the messenger, which is the poem. A well-crafted poem is good, whether it is political or not. Think of “Jabberwocky”—still one of the most beloved poems of all time, taught in schools and remembered by many who would not call themselves “poetry lovers.” What the heck is it about? Absolutely nothing. It is Carroll’s giddy, joyful wordplay that enchants us, oblivious to meaning, much less message. Asked the same question as Tony Williams, poet Katy Evans-Bush said “poetry is not about trying to make things happen. It’s about ways of experiencing, ways of navigating experience. We might look to Socrates, who told us that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ – poetry helps to create the tools for self-examination. Socrates also said: ‘Let him that would move the world first move himself.’”
There is a danger in political poetry to have an overinflated sense not just of the poem, but of the poet. A poem with a strong message can appear “important,” even if it’s sloppily crafted or riddled with feel-good or “uplifting” clichés. Moreover, there is something presumptuous about assuming that the poet has some kind of superior moral duty or ability to speak not just to others but for them. In a talk titled “Speaking of the Unspoken Places in Poetry,” Espada quotes Whitman: “Not a man walks handcuffed to the jail, but I am handcuffed / to him and walk by his side.” At face value, the thought is admirable, a triumph of human empathy. On the other hand, one can almost hear the handcuffed man thinking: no, you’re not.
It is important to write political poetry honestly and well. The poet can’t be a wagon-jumper, picking causes like flowers. The impulse to write a political poem is the same as the impulse to write a lyrical one: the poet’s attention hooks on some experience that produces meaning—personal, political, but most often both—and the words weave it back into existence for the reader. If that moment of “compelled attention,” as Mark Doty calls it, that starts the poem happens to be political, that will be a good political poem. The poet must have an intimate connection with the politics, or the poem will fail. The poet who starts backwards—who attempts to write politically “in the light of a perceived responsibility to engage with matters outside the poem,” is more politician than poet.
The act of reading a poem often politicizes content the poet might have not considered political. When Anne Bradstreet sat down to write out her writer’s angst in “The Author to Her Book,” she never could have imagined that centuries later I’d be teaching it as an example of how women struggled—and struggle—to claim authorship in patriarchal societies. No human experience is apolitical. We live in a matrix, and whether the poet looks through the window and sees a tree laden with fruit or protesters being beaten by a repressive police force, the act of writing it down so that someone else can understand it is a political act.