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?

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Please note that I also have a blog for ideas and research at: www.blogs.warwick.ac.uk/zoebrigley

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See this new blog set up to coincide with the symposium, Women Writing Rape: Literary and Theoretical Narratives of Sexual Violence

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REMINDER: When bringing poems to be workshopped in class, it would be great to bring extra copies so that we can all see the poem on the page.

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