Sunday, August 30, 2009

Politics in poetry?

I recently attended a reading
where the feature stated, “I hate political poems,” as he then proceeded to read what may or may not have been construed as a “political poem.” But this begs the question: Is there a place for politics in poetry?

I would argue that any thought-provoking topic has a place in poetry (or art), be it nature, religion, unrequited love, or even politics. I would argue that the problem is whether or not politics is approached with open-mindedness by both the audience and the artist.

Yes, that’s right. The artist too.

Exhibit A. I once attended a reading where this very issue became more than just a hypothetical question. A young man, who said he had never attended a poetry reading before, stood up to read during the open mic portion of the evening. He introduced himself as just having returned from a tour of duty in Iraq, and he read a few very sincere pieces about his personal experience with war.

The very next open mic reader of the evening stood up and read a bombastic, anti-war piece.

Shortly thereafter, the young veteran stormed out the door. I’ve never seen him at a reading anywhere around town since.

Exhibit B. I don’t know if this happens to anyone else, but often at readings, I’m approached by people (often those who don’t know me very well) who begin a political monologue with me. Regardless of whether or not I agree with the speaker, I’m immediately made uncomfortable because the speaker almost always approaches in such a way that he or she assumes that I automatically agree. I generally answer with polite silence, and the person strolls off happily, assuming, still, that I agree.

Yes, I know that as writers, we’re supposed to espouse the values of freedom of speech and all that entails. Yes, I know that, as artists, we need to be open-minded to other, often conflicting opinions.

But isn’t open-mindedness a two-way street? Doesn’t the poet need to be open-minded enough to recognize that even though someone may disagree, he or she shouldn’t be made to feel immoral, ignorant, stupid, evil, Neanderthal, or insert your disparaging adjective of choice here. Opinions can be stated and complex issues SHOULD be discussed, but in such a way that there is enough wiggle room left for someone to state an opposing opinion without being subject to—pardon the reference—a pre-emptive strike.

Dogmatism, whether you’re talking about religion, politics, or the best brand of ketchup, does nothing to improve inter-human relationships. And more often than we care to admit, I think political poetry unfortunately veers into dogmatism. Shouldn’t poetry be opening the doors to discussion and free exchange rather than closing them to maintain a pool of homogenous opinions?


Geoffrey A. Landis said...

One hundred percent agree!

I've often enough said that I don't like political poetry, but of course, that's a quip, and rather oversimplified. A problem with far too much of what passes for political poetry at readings is that it's just simplistic. Way too much of it doesn't tell me anything I don't know, and that goes for the "poetry" that agrees with my politics as well as that which doesn't. And I'm putting the word "poetry" in quotes here because, actually, if it doesn't kick me in the head-- by showing me something I haven't seen, or thoughts I haven't thought-- it's not really poetry, is it?

There is good political poetry out there, but it had better surprise me.

But, god, what is it about politics that makes otherwise sensible people turn off their brains? Rants (no matter how rhythmic) that just repeat cookie-cutter political opinion, not even as deep in imagery or as subtle in insight as page two of the Plain Dealer-- please spare me.

michael salinger said...

Two things a little off topic of the political poetry slant but.

First - nit-picky I know, Begging The Question is used incorrectly here. The correct usage can be found here. It's a pet peeve of mine - sorry.

Second - and this may require another post - anyone out there willing to run with it?

What about the politics OF poetry? How do you see them played out in our own fair city? Where are the lines drawn? What kind of "games" have you witnessed? Or is this a taboo subject?

Just sayin'


Theresa Göttl Brightman said...

Oh! Correct usage noted. Thanks!

Politics OF poetry...that's even stickier. Not something I'll tackle at 1:30 AM...but yes...

Shelley Chernin said...

I feel far removed from the politics OF poetry, but I'd be intersted to learn about it.

Michael, when you signed on the new bloggers here, you mentioned an issue with The Lit that frustrated you and said that you would tell us the story. Is it possible to do that now?

Shelley Chernin said...

As for politics IN poetry, I personally have no problem with it. I've heard and read many political poems that have moved me, into both positive and negative feelings, and enriched me in various ways.

Of course there's bad political poetry, but there's bad poetry about any subject I can think of, and I don't believe that poetry about politics is different from other subjects.

Many years ago, I was booed judging at a slam event because I gave a low score to a political poem. I happened to agree with the politics in the poem, as did most of the audience. I assume that's why I was booed, but politics aside, the poem was bad.

This city has had, and still has, some kick-ass political poets who have written wonderful poetry. Yes, some of these poems have likely made some people feel immoral, ignorant, stupid, evil, or Neanderthal. I've written poems that piss people off. Frankly, I think that's a good thing. Poetry should be engaging people on an emotional level, challenging them to confront themselves and their relationships to others, including the relationships that we label political.

When I write a political poem, I'm not looking to engage people in a discussion or hammer out some kind of bipartisan agreement. I hope to engage feelings that will challenge people to see the world in a different way or to validate something that they already think and feel. And if some people get pissed off, I've been especially successful.

Doree Adams said...

Perhaps if you don't agree with what someone is saying, the best course of action isn't to agree, as this is essentially what we do when we remain silent in the face of ignorance. This is antithetical to open expression, in my opinion. While you may not want to engage these people, you can simply state that you would rather not talk about that topic because you feel that there's an insurmountable difference of opinion. Additionally,

Then again, you can conduct your social life however you like.

As for the politics of poetry, there would be no shortage of material for a column on this. I've personally seen people ostracized for being poor or crazy. There is no shortage of glad-handing and no real critical movement whatsoever. Pompous and derivative writers are treated, for some insane reason, as though they are royalty, mostly by fawning groupies who (yay!) write even more derivative, lazy, irrelevant pieces.

You want more, I've got a million of them.

Great article, though; it was really frank and honest, which is what poetry and poetics ought to embody.

kathy said...

A rambling: we being just humans on this planet in an empirical haze, where labels are just words that span the min and max of a topology, of a feature, where rules are not universal absolutes, but coalitions of those who wish to follow and enforce a convention, where every individual feels she is right (considering the subset of that being those who think it's OK to be evil & greedy, that might makes right), and considering this kind of framework espoused by the media where 'both' points of view should be represented, but where they are in fact framing the debate between the min and max of corporate tolerances to exclude discussion of progressive solutions, where pro-war is presented as just a 'choice', a so-called palatable 'choice' or 'point of view', and being steeped in this societal stew from birth, this politically conservative stew where patriots are defined as people who go out and blow other people up, where it's just so intolerable, where the steam wants to get out, the vitriolic steam of TRUTH wants to get out, we want to CORRECT and PUNISH the stew rather than inform and inspire and coax, but this is free speech, and they have free speech, but is there free speech? And isn't this just a label and has it ever really existed? It is what it is - we can get angry - we can make it what we want, imposition or coalition, but should we? And how to enforce, hand out violations, tickets? Would we want to live under the authoritarian regime of our figured-out utopia?

claire mcmahon said...

Poetry and writing, especially within a community of writers should be inclusive, I think.

Ok, Michael, I appreciate what you've said here about keeping an open mind (perhaps to my own military brother) who often reminds me that he has put himself on the line in order for my liberal, poet-ass to have free speech to begin with (his words, not mine) but I kinda like "poet- ass" don't you? Shutting down communication is never good, and neither is shutting people out.

John "JC" Burroughs said...

I haven't been here for a few days - but then I came and BANG - found this engaging and stimulating post/discussion.

I have no clue which reading you're referring to, T.M., and therefore I'm writing a bit blindly. But I will say this: If I were hosting a reading, I'd want everyone to feel welcome to share their poetry - the military poet and the anti-military poet - whether or not I agree with either or both. I wouldn't censor one or the other. As a host, I would consider it my responsibility to let both share freely without having either feel he or she wasn't welcome. If one leaves and never returns, it's not the anti-military poet's fault for sharing his heart and mind honestly. It might, to some degree, be the poetic community's fault - but mostly, I (as a host) would have to accept responsibility/blame if someone is driven away from poetry or the poetic community on my watch.

I don't agree that war and peace are equally valid options. Personally, I hate war and prefer any other option. But I'm not going to tell the warrior he can't share and I'm not going to expect the anti-war poet to temper his words either. As long as the only weapons you bring to a poetry reading are words, I say bring them on. What are we worried about? Bring a lit lamp into a dark room and the room isn't going make the lamp dark. Bring an unlit lamp into a lit room and the lamp isn't going to unlight the room. I believe that when light and darkness can freely meet and mingle and share words - and that freedom is nurtured - light will always win out. But throw an unlit lamp out of a lit room and you lose any chance at illuminating him. And anyway, I think all of us, even the peacenik liberal that I am, can use more illumination.

A few more thoughts:

If an open mic ain't open, why would we call it that?

I think if I'm combative with a warrior it makes me a warrior, too. Why do we feel we have to "defeat" another warrior like he had to "defeat" someone else? Bertolt Brecht said that he who speaks of enemies becomes the enemy. I hate to quote a hymn, but I think this is a mighty fine motto: "Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me." We don't begin peace by silencing folk - and we don't achieve peace by fighting (we just perpetuate fighting) - but we should be honest and unafraid to speak what we think is right (even when it isn't) and listen with an open mind to others even if we ultimately agree to disagree. So we really need a balance - and I think exclusion is the enemy of that balance. I much prefer informed inclusion.

sammy greenspan said...

Good topic, TM. The notion that poetry either should or should not be "political" is for me absurd as stated. Poetry for me is art, first and foremost. Politics couched as "poem" and not crafted with love and respect for the art of it is nothing more than polemic playing dress-up.

But I've been stirred as deeply by good "political" poems as by any other poetry. The poet bears witness to the world. How can this not be, at times, political?

Michael, your question about the politics of poetry points out the absolute ordinariness of the political, how politics is an aspect of all things human, including the arts. We should talk about it. Yet it's difficult to do so in a collegial and productive way in any community, and aren't poets the "sensitive" ones? So maybe poets tend, even more than your average bear, to get nose out of joint in such exchanges.

Is being "open-minded" even enough? At bottom, a poet can only really surprise or enlighten me with what has surprised or enlightened the poet. If one begins writing a piece with a fixed opinion about what it is, what it appears to be, and what it means, that surprise seems unlikely. So yes, the artist must be open! Amen!

Poetry-making is for me a process of discovery. The poem-in-process often takes me in directions that startle me. That's my process and it might not be yours, but I'd make the case that even this difference is political.

And of course, as always, all I write here is my opinion only, for what it's worth.

Geoffrey A. Landis said...

"At bottom, a poet can only really surprise or enlighten me with what has surprised or enlightened the poet. If one begins writing a piece with a fixed opinion about what it is, what it appears to be, and what it means, that surprise seems unlikely."

Yes, that's it exactly. Far too many political poems are polemics, and boring polemics, too-- and that goes double for ones with politics I agree with. I say, to hell with them.

Take a look at your political poem, and ask yourself, is this going to surprise anybody? Does it say anything they can't read in the paper (and the boring pages of the paper, at that)?

Kick me in the head. Show me what you see that I've never seen before. Give me human beings, not cliches and idealized icons of human beings.

Then I'll say- "Now, that's a poem!"

michael salinger said...

I agree with Sammy. Good poetry is good poetry and mediocre poetry is intolerable no matter the subject.

I think this is a place where the politics OF poetry collides with politics in poetry. Too many times we are willing to accept less than average material because:

A) We agree with the presenter’s opinion and being critical of the work could be construed as being against the sentiment presented.

B) We don't want to appear politically incorrect because after all poetry is subjective and the person is trying so hard.

C) We add more weight to the chance that someone may be able to do us a favor down the road.

D) We are afraid of being the person to point out the emperor has no clothes.

E) The poet in question is a part of our special little group.

F) This person has said nice things about our own work.

sammy greenspan said...

Michael, some of these, in my opinion, are issues not best addressed in the setting of a public reading.

If poets hone their craft and join forces with other poets doing the same, then any public poetry gathering they foment will have critical mass of decent work. But would I crank on a colleague at a reading, if they bring what to me is inferior work? No way. That's not the place for such critique.

Also, the purpose of the open mic is, in part, to leave room for the developing poet. So we can't expect everything read at open mic to be polished work.

As for people's dismay over the politics of power relationships in this community, that's life with humans. There is no community free of it. We can, however, bring the issues to light, and make conscious choices about how to address them.

Here's an example, and you tell me how you would have handled it. A friend edits a literary journal. He had a submission from a longtime friend whose work he generally admired. But this submission was not right for the issue, and he rejected it. The longtime friend no longer speaks to him and has trashed him all over town [stop trying to figure out who it is, this is another city, people].

So who's right? Which comes first, our obligation to relationships, or our obligation to art? Is there any room for compromise? We can all cite examples of nepotism in publishing, favoritism etc. I can tell you from my own limited experience that what we don't see so obviously is the sometimes herculean attempts to avoid nepotism, or even its appearance. Those efforts take place behind closed doors.

Like I said, life with humans. Not so simple...

michael salinger said...

some of these, in my opinion, are issues not best addressed in the setting of a public reading.

I see your point - where should they be addressed then?

As for your editor friend - that's a tough one. I've been on both sides of this equation. Perhaps if there were a more open forum - where criticism was taken as subjective instead of an assault on a person's worth your submitting friend would have had the experience to weather a rejection.

All in all though - I would have to side with the editor on this one.

sammy greenspan said...

Yep, me too. That said, I'm happy it was his decision and not mine. Part of me wants to be strictly "objective" when reading work (as if that is even really possible). The other part is always and quite naturally sympathetic to friends, and cheering on whatever they write.

Ongoing workshops are where, for me, critique can best be done. There, and of course, in private exchanges with best poetry- & other-arts-pals.

Some people who turn out for open mics and for one-shot poetry workshops are not much open to critique, they have a more narcissistic agenda. You can't support development of their work if they aren't looking to develop it. We need to distinguish between someone driven to make poems, not yet very effective but who wants to improve, and someone just tooting their horn for the horn's sake.

When you boil all that down, it just seems like ordinary life stuff. Not specific to poetry circles, not so specifically political. Just folks being folks. Our opportunity is to figure out how to sustain the art, move the art forward, while being compassionate, generous and discerning in how we respond to folks.

Simple, right?

Shelley Chernin said...

Simple? Well, not necessarily simple in the details, but perhaps simplifiable in a general sense.

As I read Michael's list and think about Sammy's example of the editor and his friend, I see need. All human interaction really seems to be about getting needs met. Politics, whether at the level of government or in other areas of our lives, is simply the negotiation of conflicting needs.

If I were the editor, I would probably think about what my friend needed, and if I couldn't meet my friend's need, I would at least acknowledge to my friend that I'm aware of his or her need and tell my friend what my own needs are in the situation and why I can't meet my friend's need.

Sometimes it's enough if people feel seen and heard, even if they don't get what they want.

Theresa Göttl Brightman said...

2 cents on the politics of's taboo to try to say, "I can still be your friend and colleague without necessarily liking everything you write."

But it shouldn't be, and, as Michael said, a friendship should be able to weather some constructive criticism.

And friendships should be open and honest enough to expect criticism of a piece that needs work.

But that's a lot of "should's" and not enough "are's".

As Sammy said, "Life with humans."

(Which, by the way, I think is a great title for something...)


The poet doesn't invent. He listens. ~Jean Cocteau