Sunday Apr 14

hoppenthaler In the fall, I am scheduled to teach a graduate seminar entitled Reading and Writing the Political Poem. I recently returned from  the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Annual Conference,  and I was struck there by how many of the hundreds of panel offerings had something to do with poetry and politics. 


On "Political Poetry"

Think back with me, please, to the early days of 2003. George Bush is "in charge," and poetry is in the midst of becoming, as it is always in the midst of becoming. Narrative and accessibility are in the crosshairs of younger poets (and some older poets jumping on the bandwagon) who are practicing a period style we've come to call the "elliptical" or "experimental" lyric. Snarky reviews based not on a volume's success or failure on its own terms but, rather, on aesthetic terms ("You don't write in the style that I admire; therefore, your work sucks") are all the rage. Whispers of contest fixing and other insider scandal is thrumming through the ears of those of us in "Pobiz," and in 2004 Alan Cordle would launch the web site that brought these suspicions to a head, The painful transition from paper artifacts, books and literary journals, to virtual space had begun in earnest, and many, particularly those poets in their mid to later years, saw this as very threatening indeed. American poetry was also still reeling from the fallout of Dana Goia's accusatory essay "Can Poetry Matter?" In it he claims that:

     Without a role in the broader culture . . . talented poets lack the confidence to
     create public speech. Occasionally a writer links up rewardingly to a social or
     political movement. [Adrienne] Rich, for example, has used feminism to expand
     the vision of her work. Robert Bly wrote his finest poetry to protest the Vietnam
     War. . . . But it is a difficult task to marry the Muse happily to politics.
     Consequently, most contemporary poets, knowing that they are virtually invisible
     in the larger culture, focus on the more intimate forms of lyric and meditative

More was afoot in the poetry world, too, as the virus-like growth of MFA Programs began to raise questions about how such corporatization of creative writing was playing out in creative work and in the job market. What exactly were these students hoping to get from the process, and what exactly was it that they seemed to be receiving? In other words, poetry was in the midst of its own interior political dramas and dilemmas; therefore, it seems, writing poetry about issues that required a poet to focus her or his lens outwardly rather than inwardly fell into disfavor. Poets who, in 2003, were in their twenties and thirties fell into the so-called "Generation Me," with its grade inflation, unjustified praise and irrational sense of entitlement, and this may have had something to do with the navel-gazing. One might also blame the residual influence "confessional" poetry continued to wield. In any case, the fact remains that much of the poetry written in MFA workshops and by those who taught them were marked by the sort of solipsism that takes it for granted that the author is at the center of the universe and the reader, by golly, ought to find value in that.

Yet, when Laura Bush, much ballyhooed for the fact of her status as an "educator" and former librarian, decided to cancel a planned White House conference, "Poetry and the American Voice," because, as her spokesperson explained, "While Mrs. Bush respects the right of all Americans to express their opinions, she, too, has opinions and believes it would be inappropriate to turn a literary event into a political forum," it apparently began to foment a shifting in popular poetic subject matter that continues to this day. What had happened to cause the cancellation was that poet Sam Hamill, editor of Copper Canyon Press, as Katha Pollitt writes in the February 24th, 2003 issue of The Nation, "responded to his invitation by putting out an e-mail urging invitees and others to send him poems and statements opposing the invasion of Iraq." "When I spoke to him on the phone," Pollitt continues, "Hamill described himself as a lifelong radical ('What on earth were they thinking?' he wondered out loud), and said he had planned to decline his invitation but had hoped to compile an anthology that another invitee would present to the First Lady. Within days almost 2,000 poets had responded to his plea." Later in the piece, Pollitt and Hamill sum up the effects of this Bush faux pas:

     So much for democracy, free speech, vigorous discussion. In this most insulated
     and choreographed of administrations, the 'American voice'—note the singular—
     is welcome only when it says what the White House wants to hear. And yet, as so
     often, censorship backfired. 'They did us an extraordinary favor,' Hamill told me.
     'They revealed that there are many, many poets opposed to the Bush regime. And
     they demonstrated their fear of the carefully chosen word—their fear of poetry.'"

Since that point many American poets, I believe, have been writing more poems that are socially and culturally engaged. Lately, the giddy energy and hope generated by the meteoric and largely unforeseen rise of Obama, countered by subsequent frustration created by the lingering effects of a brutalized economy, a highly contentious health care ordeal, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, tea parties, the troubling rise of overt and covert racism and other forms of systematized hate, and even events like the lingering anguish brought about by Hurricane Katrina has created fertile ground for the creation of political poetry. Thank God. If poetry IS to matter in this country—as it does in others where poetry writing is viewed by both villainous governments and victims as potentially subversive and dangerous, as art that can contribute to an effort to affect change—then it must be so that poetry in America continues to grow as a site, alongside others, where critical and ongoing political conversation takes place. That Natasha Trethewey's Native Guard won her a Pulitzer Prize, that Brian Turner's Here, Bullet has sold an enormous number of books for a very small independent press (Alice James), that anthologies of political poetry are being published and sold—these things all point to the possibility of an era where the poetry of engagement and witness might continue to flourish and, as a result, vitalize an otherwise marginalized and, therefore, largely unimportant literary genre in the United States and elsewhere.

Of the poems included in this month's Congeries, several provide compelling models for poetry that may be seen as "political." Dan Masterson's relatively traditional narrative poem, "Watch Even Until Night," abhors and insinuates even as it refuses to give in to the temptation of finger pointing; rather, the troubling story—in the news these days at every turn—allows the reader to engage in his or her own relationship with the awful matter. Through the first thirty lines of Brendan Galvin's "One for the Raptors," a reader will notice that the speaker maintains, for some unknown reason, a crotchety relationship with nature. The potential source of this attitude, a "political" source, is revealed, however, in the poem's final lines, and the haiku-like linking of nature with human nature provides the reader with much to think about. Finally, the title of Medbh McGuckian's "Gold Star Mother" comes from American Gold Star Mothers, Inc., a group formed after World War I to provide support for mothers who'd lost sons or daughters in the war. The mother's loss is never specifically mentioned in the poem; instead, the poem's great power comes from the fact that "She audibly does not say several things / That occur to her . . . ."


Follow THIS LINK to a complete listing of all the contributors in this month's A Poetry Congeries, with John Hoppenthaler.