All entries for Friday 02 February 2007

February 02, 2007

Poetry and Politics


Denys Thompson’s The Uses of Poetry: ‘Patriotism and Politics’ notes that poetry has always had a political purpose in human societies. There were eulogies that strengthened the position of a tribal leader by glorifying deeds in war. There were war songs that enticed people to fight enemies, but it was also believed in early times that the songs could bring destruction to their enemies by means of spells and curses. Poems of nation or culture have existed fro a long time, their role being to preserve the identity and maintain the continuity of those groups or nations under threat. Finally there is propaganda. This kind of writing has a short term purpose – a change of government or the relief of a wrong – and the poet does not necessarily believe in what he is saying. Rather the poet may be a hireling working for an individual group.

However, some critics, poets and theorists do believe that the poem has the potential to be a powerful political too. Julia Kristeva states: ‘The text [i.e. poetry] is a practice that could be compared to political revolution’. Below, I present a number of view of poets and critics on the relationship between poetry and politics. Read them and then study the questions below:

When literary doctrines or manifestos become pawns in politically motivated power-games, then poetry is forced to yield up its essentially symbolic, apolitical nature. – Anne Stevenson in ‘Defending the Freedom of the Poet’, Contemporary British Women’s Poetry.

It is impossible for anybody who wants to write a poetry that is politically revolutionary to write in the way that most poems in Britain are written. […] It means that a lot of poetry today will look like adverts. It sells not a product (“Right for baby, right for you”) but a moral (“What survives of us is love”). -Robert Sheppard in ‘The Education of Desire’, Ship of Fools.

I came out first as a political poet, even before The Dream of a Common Language, under the taboo against so-called political poetry in the US, which was comparable to the taboo against homosexuality. In other words, it wasn’t done. And this is, of course, the only country in the world where that has been true. Go to Latin America, to the Middle East, to Asia, to Africa, to Europe, and you find the political poet and a poetry that addresses public affairs and public discourse, conflict, oppression, and resistance. That poetry is seen as normal. And it is honored. – Adrienne Rich

This OBE thing is supposed to be for my services to literature, but there are a whole lot of writers who are better than me, and they’re not involved in the things that I’m involved in. All they do is write; I spend most of my time doing other things. If they want to give me one of these empire things, why can’t they give me one for my work in animal rights? Why can’t they give me one for my struggle against racism? What about giving me one for all the letters I write to innocent people in prisons who have been framed? I may just consider accepting some kind of award for my services on behalf of the millions of people who have stood up against the war in Iraq. It’s such hard work – much harder than writing poems. – Benjamin Zephaniah

Certainly among a number of our writers, ‘radical’ and otherwise, a crude new notion of decorum has developed. One speaks harshly of harsh realities, brutally of brutalities, one tells it how it is and finds in one’s responses to the subject matter the idiom of the poem. That is, one leaves as little distance as possible between the poem’s idiom and the poet’s initial response to subject matter. One capitulates, not to the subject matter (as the Imagist would try to do) but to one’s first response to it. This is conceived of as poetic truth: to sacrifice perspective to the immediate tone of response, regardless of the context — temporal, spatial, ethical — of that response. The extreme subjectivity and the ultimate irresponsibility of such capitulation to ‘self’ excludes the reader from the experience of anything but the poet experiencing, the poet responding. -Michael Schmidt on the Politics of Form

The welding together of poetry and politics becomes the art of recognising an appropriate level of language. For instance, factional politics (Party or issue-based politics) is infamous for mishandling and degrading the language. Those who place Mayakovsky above Mendelstam fall into the trap of mistaking Mayakovsky’s dogmatism for certainty. Mandelstam was far more certain — the purpose and precision of his imagery shows his mind was locked onto the world like a laser. -David Morley on Poets, Politics, Etcetera, Etcetera

• How can a poem influence political change?
• Can you think of any examples of poems that have influenced political change? E.g. war poetry, feminist poetry etc.
• Is writing politically putting the integrity of poetry in danger?
• Should it remain apolitical as Anne Stevenson suggests?
• Can political poetry be too didactic?
• Is the message or the poem more important?
• If the tricks of poetic language are being appropriated by media forms like advertising, how can we ensure that it retains its integrity?
• Can there be politics in the use of poetic form?

This is Not A Pipe: Magritte’s Belief in Undecidability

Magritte - Key to the Interpretation of Dreams

In Les Mots et Les Images, Magritte notes that ‘everything tends to make us think that there is very little connection between an object and what represents it’ and that ‘an object never fulfils the same function’. Influenced by the Surrealist movement that was emerging from Paris, Magritte’s art began to play with the notion of language, representation and art. Most infamous is his painting of a pipe with the caption ‘This is not a pipe’. The painting emphasises that a picture of a pipe and the real object are not the same thing thus undoing a more traditional, mimetic motivation in art.

Andre Souris talking of Surrealist thought labelled the word as ‘ a highly combustible object’. Magritte emphasised that words and images must be freed from ‘the obsessional urge to give meaning to things so as to use them or dominate them’.

In his art, Magritte provides attentive analysis of the arbitrary nature of language. Like Wittgenstein, Magritte believes that language is made up of games rather than acting as a picture of facts. Knowing the words that make up a language is not the same as speaking or writing in it. A player may know the name of the chess pieces – rook, castle, queen – yet this does not necessarily mean that s/he will be able to play. Words have uses and these uses are dictated by the rules of the game. Neither Wittgenstein nor Magritte would have agreed with the simplistic understanding of language as words that stand for some thing. This view would ignore the rules of language and how it is used in patterns of use.

Magritte’s word-pictures provide a commentary on language and art and they seem to suggest to us that pictorial representation and verbal description work in much the same manner. Just as words are symbols so are pictures and importantly, pictures need not necessarily resemble what they represent. Representation can be arbitrary and almost anything can be used as a sign.

In art, a finished work may bear little resemblance to its subject. When Picasso was asked about his portrait of Gertrude Stein and told that it did not resemble her, he replied ‘No matter, it will’. Here is the conflict between resemblance and representation.

We usually attribute resemblance to things which may or may not have a common nature. We say ‘as alike as two peas in a pod’ and we say, just as easily, that the fake resembles the authentic. This so-called resemblance consists of relations of comparison, whose similarities are perceived by the mind when it examines, evaluates and composes. Likeness is not concerned with ‘common sense’ or with defying it, but only with spontaneously assembling shapes from the world of appearance in an order given by inspiration. – René Magritte

Magritte based his word paintings on a child’s reading primer. The juxtaposition is startling and seems to reflect Baudelaire’s advocating of ‘that unexpected element, strangeness , the condiment indispensable to all beauty’. In Magritte, strangeness is linked to the mysterious play of undecidability in representation.

Further Links for Imagism and Surrealism

Balakian, Anna. Surrealism and the Road to the Absolute. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1972. (PQ 443.S8)

Caws, Mary Ann. The Poetry of Dada and Surrealism: Aragon, Breton, Tzara, Eluard and Desnos. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970. (PQ 443.S8)

Gascoyne, David. A Short Survey of Surrealism. Lodnon: Frank Cass, 1970. (PQ 307.S8)

Germain, Edward B. ed. English and American Surrealist Poetry. London: Penguin, 1978. (PR 1228.S8)

Harmer, J.B. Victory in Limbo: Imagism 1908-1917. London: Secker and Warburg, 1975. (PR 605.I6)

Hughes, Glenn. Imagism and the Imagists: A Study in Modern Poetry. London: Bowes and Bowes, 1960. (PR 605.I6)

Matthews, J.H. ed. An Anthology of French Surrealist Poetry. London: University of London Press, 1966. (PQ 1193.S8) (See introduction, poems in French)

Matthews, J.H. Surrealism, Insanity and Poetry. New York: Syracuse University Press, 1982. (PQ 443.S8)

Matthews, J.H. Surrealist Poetry in France. New York: Syracuse University Press, 1969.

Also see:
Modern American Poetry

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