In the July/August edition of Poetry, there’s an essay by David Orr titled “The Politics of Poetry” that I want to comment on a little. The subject as a whole has been on my mind a lot lately–I wrote about it some on my other blog in response to Stanley Fish’s comments on his NY Times blog about politics in the classroom, and I think there are a few crossovers to this essay.
But first, a little snark about the frame Orr uses for this essay. He begins with the story of Tom Buffenbarger, the head of the machinist’s union and a Hillary Clinton supporter in Ohio, who went off on the stereotypical (as he saw them) Barack Obama supporter. It was the usual tripe–lattes and Birkenstocks were mentioned, and he threw out, as an epithet, that Obama wasn’t a fighter, but a poet.
Orr follows this story with the following passage:
Fortunately, this insult to the sacred mysteries of Poesie didn’t go unanswered–within a few days, the poet John Lundberg angrily riposted at the Huffington Post, declaring that he “would be happy to step outside” with Buffenbarger to show him that poets can indeed mix it up. (Smart money is on Lundberg, as Buffenbarger appears to have lost several dozen battles to the combined forces of Little Debbie and Sara Lee.)
Well, I have to disagree a touch–not with Lundberg’s sentiment, but with the notion that John would necessarily take Buffenbarger out. John and I were Stegner Fellows for a year back in 2003, and while I remember him as a fellow in pretty good shape–far better than the shape I’m in, for the record–he didn’t strike me as the “able to take out a machinist” type, no matter how many Star Crunches he can eat at a single sitting. There’s a mistaken belief by some that fat people are doughy and weak–that’s not generally true, especially if they were originally people who did physical labor when they were younger. Add in that a fat guy can usually take a punch like nobody’s business, and your only hope in a fight is to tire them out. I was a bartender while an undergrad, and there was a reason we had 300 pounders at the door and in the bar–they could take a punch from a drunk redneck and knock him on his ass without breaking a sweat.
Okay, to the substance of the article. One of the things Orr points to as a problem with contemporary political verse has to do with the lyric as “contemporary poetry’s dominant mode.” He writes:
The modern lyric may be fractured, tweaked, or warped, but essentially it remains a self-enclosed world created by a singular voice (which isn’t always the same thing as a single subject called “I”). That voice is often speaking to itself in meditative solitude, yet even as the lyric insists on privacy, the act of insisting necessarily implies that there’s someone to be insisted to. This puts the lyric in a potentially awkward position relative to the larger political world.
I suspect he’s right about this being the problem, and I think it’s no surprise that some of the more anthologized contemporary political poems today either take the form of narratives (Rita Dove’s “Parsley,” Carolyn Forché’s “The Colonel”) or extended rants (Judy Jordan’s “Poem about My Rights”). Those forms lend themselves more to exclamations of political positions or illustrations of the dangers of uncurbed power.
Orr addresses another, thornier problem in the next section of his essay when he quotes a poem by Ralph Nader titled “Don’t Listen to Senator Leahy.” I’ll let you google it rather than copy it down here for you. Orr says that this poem is noteworthy
“because it’s comfortable with the idea of politics as politics; it doesn’t presume to stand outside the details of political life while offering judgment on that life.” That’s not the case for poets, he says, and he offers a poem titled “Bush’s War” by Robert Hass as an example. (You can find it here.) Orr writes:
Hass’s feelings are praiseworthy and his despair at American policy is justifiable, but the poem never addresses its political subject in terms that are actually political. It puts forward no argument, makes no revelatory comparison, confronts no new audience, engages no new misconception in language liekly to be understood by the deceived, and so on and so on.
I don’t think that’s completely accurate. The poem has problems, from my point of view–it begins with “I” and stays there for far too long, and wanders through places not remotely connected to Bush’s war. I can understand the desire to do that, to approach a subject like this obliquely, but the poem doesn’t really begin to resonate until it becomes immediate, near the end.
Certainly there’s a rage
To injure what’s injured us. Wars
Are always pitched to us that way.
The well-paid news readers read the reasons
On the air. And we who are injured,
Or have been convinced that we are injured,
Are always identified with virtue. It’s that–
The rage to hurt mixed with self-righteousness
And fear–that’s murderous.
That’s a political statement, no doubt about it. The problem–if we’re saying that Hass’s poem isn’t political enough–is that it doesn’t stay there. It doesn’t continue this argument. It turns inward again, with the death and destruction covered over by time and nature. We know that’s what will happen, but political poems tend to tell us what should happen, at least from the poet’s point of view. There’s a sense of advocacy to them which is missing from Hass’s poem.
I’ve been trying, with little success so far, to make my poetry more political than it has been–the tension between artistry and rhetorical power is tough to deal with. But this gives me some things to think about.
Betty Adcock’s poem may be a teenager now, but it certainly hasn’t lost any of its political relevance. If anything, it’s more relevant now than ever, given the recent Democratic party primary, and the friction that was given center stage in what some political bloggers called “the oppression Olympics.” With the word feminist in the title, there’s no doubt that the poem will have a political bent, but the poem begins with a surprising twist:
You describe your grandmothers walking straight
off the boats from Finland, Latvia
too late, early in this century to bear blame
for sins we’re bound to expiate:
The sins are listed soon after: “slavery, lynchings, native massacre” for starters. But the argument is one we hear often today when discussions of things like slave reparations come up in the public sphere. Lots of people argue against, saying “My family never owned slaves” or “we came here after the Civil War, so what would I owe.” It’s a compelling argument, if it’s viewed in a vacuum. Holding people responsible for the sins of their ancestors is dodgy enough, but if said ancestors didn’t actually sin, well, where’s the justice in that?
Before Adcock answers that question, though, she makes a point that strikes close to home for me. I, like Adcock, am a southerner, complete with accent. I don’t know if it’s been a hindrance professionally because I’m still young in my career (though not so much in life), but it’s something that any professional person is keenly aware of. A southern accent, especially a strong one, brings along certain baggage–you’re stupid, you’re racist, you’re backwards, and if you aren’t, then you’re one of the few who has struggled and managed to rise above your inbred past, et cetera. And as Adcock mentions, there’s also the sense of superiority that some northerners like to hold over you:
the whole treasury of virtue hammered home
i speeches praising Michigan and the lever of the war
that undid slavery and joined the union back.
As though racism exists only in the south. As if race riots only ever happen in New Orleans or Atlanta or Birmingham, instead of in Chicago or Detroit or Los Angeles.
It would be easy to turn this into a rant on how southerners bear an inordinate burden for the race problems in the US, but Adcock doesn’t do that. Southerners deserve every bit of the crap we take for it, especially since we continue to have a major problem with openly racist symbolism in the public square. Adcock says “Never believe it’s gone,” and that’s good advice, both for those of us who live in the middle of it and for those who live in their bubbles of privilege, who use terms like “post-racial” without a hint of irony.
Which brings us back to the title: To a Young Feminist Who Wants to Be Free. What does feminism have to do with this? How can a movement built to fight oppression find itself expressing its own privilege? Adcock concludes:
Anyone who came here anytime
came here to take this country’s gifts.
Not even you may refuse this one:
what’s built on darkness rests on it.
And there is wisdom yet, though hard to see
in this peculiar light. It is the only light
we’ve got. And when was it notthe case
(except in hell) that land and history
wear another’s face?
Here is the necessary, fearsome, precious
backward whole embrace.
There is no escaping the sins of our ancestors, even if our direct ancestors were not personally involved. This is our privilege, and it is important that we acknowledge it in all its forms. Adcock shows us only one, but it’s an important one.
I certainly see nothing wrong with parodying old, famous poems–one of my last publications was a reworking of one of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets (mine began “Batter my arteries, trans-fatty globules”)–so when I was leafing through an anthology I’m considering adopting for a class this fall and I came across Harryette Mullen’s “Dim Lady,” I wanted to give it a closer look.
She’s adapted Shakespeare’s sonnet 130, recited at the end of this clip by the British comic Catherine Tate:
Mullen’s treatment is also irreverent–she’s dumped the sonnet form, which is good because the overall transformation is really more one of style than substance. Mullen makes it a prose poem, and tries to make it sound like Lord Buckley has risen from the dead to put his hipster spin on the poem.
My honeybunches peepers are nothing like neon. Today’s special at Red Lobster is redder than her kisser. If Liquid Paper is white, her racks are institutional beige. If her mop were Slinkys, dishwater Skinkys would grow on her noggin.
Et cetera. The overall effect, however, leaves me a little limp, because it reads more like a cutesy translation than a transformation. We don’t really gain anything new from this poem that we can’t get from the Shakespeare, and it seems to me that the obligation of any imitation or updating is to add to the original.