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Saturday, July 9, 2011

I'm on the Pavement Thinking About Political Poems

What have you been up to lately? I've been looking at/thinking about visual art, reading about the life of Henrietta Swan Leavitt, and enjoying the scent of two tiny beeswax candles--one in the shape of a pine cone, and the other in the shape of a bee hive. Am also revising poems that have to do with consumerism, conspicuous consumption, the cult of materialism, but also with war and other nasty things I didn't used to write about because I was too worried about lapsing into cliche and rhetoric.

Political poems, poems of social commentary, are not the easiest to write. Love poems, at least to me, are a cinch compared to writing about war or famine or ecological disaster--but I have been busily trying my best.

If you are thinking you'd like to move from writing about your pet chinchilla or the spider you found in the toilet this morning to something akin to a political poem, the best place to start is with Poetry Northwest's Spring/Summer 2008 issue, The Political Issue. Not only are there quite a few wonderful newer poems by the likes of Michael Heffernan, Heather McHugh, Kevin Young, and Mary Jo Salter, but there's a wonderful feature where they asked each contributor to share their favorite political poems. Brilliant move. That feature alone is worth twice the price of the magazine. If reading the poems in the issue, plus tracking down the poems by Yeats, CK Williams, John Ashbery, plus having a gander at Kristin Prevallet's Dear George Bush doesn't get you fired up to write your own political poem, try reading some poems by Muriel Rukeyser, Anna Ahkmatova, and Bob Hicok. His "Stop-Loss" is a great place to start.

A few tips as you begin drafting a political poem:

(1) I know it sounds like a cliche, but the personal really is political, at least to the extent that your personal take (your images, your voice and style, your anecdotes and experiences about a political event or a beef against your government) is way more engaging than hollow/generic rhetoric and rehashed rage. Tell it from your own point of view, not from what you've been told by someone or some history book, news program, or newspaper.

(2) Even though you might have a specific opinion about the war in Iraq or who should be the next president, don't go into the poem already knowing what you want to say or where you want your poem to end up. Eek, no. Instead, go forth with no clue where you will end. That Bob Frost guy was a self-aggrandizing duffer, but he got at least two things straight:

(a) "A poem should begin in delight and end in wisdom; and

(b) "If it is not a wild ride, it is not a poem.

The same holds true for political poems.

(3) Railing against the machine does not require chest-beating or grand and eloquent statements. You don't have to have answers or solutions. The best political poems open the can of boingy, purple and orange-striped Wonderama worms and leave it the audience to react, revile, and/or pass it on. You don't have to be The Great Solver, or The Great Resolver. Sharing a racist encounter in a poem (without even commenting on it, necessarily, though you might) is quite enough.

(4) Get ready to revise, revise, and revise some more. Prepare to meet thy soap-box detector. It is tough to decide if you've crossed the line into preachy fanaticism. If you are not sure, put the poem in a drawer for a while, then come back to it when you're a tad less fired up.

I could use some help with this last step myself--when the humor completely drains out of a poem, it's hard to know if I've gone too far-- if I've lost my audience, bummed everyone out with my downer sadness about the state of the union.

Political poems take longer to write than poems about your sweet grandma or the Ossobuco your loving partner prepared for you last night. They can take a year or more, and then some.
Be patient and don't give up; you'll get it right eventually.


Poetic Soul said...

I've never attempted a political poem, great take on them you got here

Martha Silano said...

Thanks, Poetic Soul. I hope my comments give you the courage to write one!

Lyle Daggett said...

This is something that highly interests me. In general, the poetry I'm most drawn to is poetry that deals with politically relevant subjects, or that approaches the world from a politically conscious point of view (whatever the immediate subject of the poem might be).

Some poets whose work has been especially important to me in this regard include Thomas McGrath, Muriel Rukeyser, Pablo Neruda, Yannis Ritsos, Yosano Akiko, Julia de Burgos, Sharon Doubiago, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Etheridge Knight, Anna Swir, Leopold Sedar Senghor, Anuradha Mahapatra, Kenneth Rexroth, Anna Swir, Claribel Alegria, Joy Harjo, Audre Lorde, Martin Espada... these among many others.

While I would agree that it's not always necessary to know ahead of time what you want to say in a poem, I don't think it's forbidden either. I think it's entirely possible to write a poem that intentionally makes a specific political argument or statement, and that also works well as a poem.

I guess the point, for me, is that to write politically explicit poetry well, it helps if the politics come from as deep and essential a place in yourself as the poems do. If either the poetry or the political statement is written from too shallow a place in the poet's psyche, the result (in my experience) tends toward predictability and cliche.

That anyway is more or less where my thinking about this is at the moment.

Sometime back I made an attempt at writing something like a full-on prose statement about the topic of political poetry (for lack of a better term for it). What I came up with is published in the online poetry magazine Pemmmican, here, if you care to take a look.

Thanks for posting this.

Martha Silano said...

Thanks for your insightful comments, Lyle--I loved getting your "take" on how to write successful political poems ... and also your list of influences. I heartily second all the folks you've recommended!