On "The Politics of Poetry"
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.
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