poetry. All human activity is political because it takes place
in a context--the context of history. Sending someone a recipe
for crab meat salad is one thing if you work food prep in
a restaurant kitchen. It means something else if you're Nancy
have been political, in some sense of the word, from the earliest
beginnings to the present. Enheduanna, Sumerian poet, priestess
of the moon goddess Inanna, the earliest poet whose name is
known. The Chinese government compiled collections of popular
folk songs--for example, the Shih Ching, the Book of
Songs--as a way of learning something about what the people
were thinking. (Did Nixon listen to Bob Dylan or Joan Baez
or Pete Seeger? Does George Bush listen to Billy Bragg or
Tracy Chapman or rap music?)
Homer was political. (George
Bush on the walls of Troy.) The Bhagavad Gita (which
J. Robert Oppenheimer quoted as he watched the first atomic
bomb explode in the New Mexico desert) was and is political.
The plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles and Euripedes were defining
forces in Greek society. Dante and Shakespeare and Milton
were all political. (If Dante were writing today, who would
he consign to the ninth circle of Hell?) The great flowering
of art and culture in medieval Spain grew originally from
the founding of a new Umayyad dynasty in exile by survivors
of the conquest of Damascus by the Abbasids. The trouveres
and troubadours of medieval France lived in a time of constant
upheaval and displacement and continuously shifting political
alliances, in which most if not all of them were intimately
involved. (Many died during the wholesale slaughter that took
place during the Albigensian crusades, following which troubadour
poetry essentially came to a halt.)
Chaucer was political, Tu Fu
was political, Murasaki Shikibu was political. Andrew Marvell,
William Blake, Shelley, Keats, Byron, Whitman, Rubén
Darío, José Martí, Yosano Akiko. Political,
in at least some sense of the word.
What we're talking about here
is something more specific. We're talking about poetry that
expresses or reflects--either explicitly or at least by suggestion--politics
that are left-wing, working-class, populist, or of a similar
How to combine politics with
creative work remains an unsettled question on the political
Left. This is not simply a question of Socialist or Communist
Realism versus whatever else.
The widespread stereotype of
Socialist Realism emphasizes the huge public portraits and
statues of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, etc., and maybe allows for
some murals and poster art of muscle-bound workers in factories
and rosy-cheeked starry-eyed young men and women gazing off
at the bright horizon of the future. This, again, is the stereotype.
But it should be patently obvious
that public portraits and monument sculpture, poster art,
industrial murals and calendar art, and so on, comprise only
a portion (and not necessarily the best) of a culture's art.
We cannot judge the effectiveness of Socialist Realism (or
any other artistic movement or tendency of the political Left)
based only on the more mediocre or homogenized examples.
Should we judge the art of capitalist
societies based solely on Norman Rockwell and Mount Rushmore?
Should we judge American literature based on McGuffey's reader?
Are these the basis for the prevailing critical standards
advocated by the literature and art departments at leading
For every Norman Rockwell there's
a Diego Rivera, a David Siqueiros, a Walter Crane, a Sue Coe;
for every Edgar Guest and Joyce Kilmer there's a Thomas McGrath,
a Muriel Rukeyser, a Hugh MacDiarmid.
Some people argue that there
is much badly written political poetry--that much of it reads
like a political pamphlet chopped into line breaks, or sing-song
rhyming doggerel--and that this proves that political subject
matter is not suited to poetry.
But there is also much badly
written love poetry, badly written poetry about religion,
nature, and every other subject. Do we then conclude that
love, religion, nature, etc., are also unsuitable subjects
for poetry? Do Hallmark greeting cards invalidate the work
of Dante and Shakespeare and Shelley and Wordsworth?
Journalism reports facts; poetry
tells the truth. In our time much political discourse in English--including
discourse on the political Left--is weighted with high-sounding
rhetoric, with the Greco-Roman vocabulary of philosophy, psychology,
and the other social sciences. One of our tasks, when writing
about political subject matter (or any other subject), is
to make decisions about the vocabulary we use.
There is nothing wrong with
using, in a poem, words such as "capitalism," "working
class," "imperialism," "revolution,"
etc. The challenge is to ground such language in the concrete
physical texture and detail of the world we live in from day
to day, to reclaim it from the bourgeois abuse and alienation
it has suffered, to give it the life and meaning it can actually
We are not talking about merely
taking a political speech or pamphlet, or a set of theoretical
statements, and simplistically grafting them onto the skeleton
of a poem--as if writing a poem were an act of taxidermy.
It's difficult to write a love poem if you've never been in
love, or to write a poem about nature if you've never touched
Similarly, it can be difficult
to write a good political poem if you've never marched in
an anti-war demonstration, or faced a platoon of police in
riot gear preparing to charge, or tried to pay rent or medical
bills when you've been unemployed for six months. The best
examples of good left-wing political poetry are written out
of an organic understanding of the politics, and out of a
passionate involvement in the historical movements of the
time and place in which the poet lives.
of the political Left from the 20th century has developed
along several currents or tendencies. My intention here is
not to define rigid categories but to give examples of some
of the possibilities poets have explored. (Though one or two
of the poets I've named below might not strictly be considered
politically Left, all have at least shown a general outlook
in their work that is populist, working-class, anti-fascist,
radically democratic, or of a similar character.)
1. Poetry rich in metaphor
and imagery, poetry that works mainly by evoking feeling and
sensory experience (rather than by elaborating intellectual
argument or rhetorical appeal). Example poets might be Pablo
Neruda (usually), Paul Éluard, Lorca, Yosano Akiko,
Mahmoud Darwish, Dale Jacobson, René Depestre. Sometimes
verging on surrealism, as with Éluard and Lorca and
2. Poetry that is agitational
in tone, spare in imagery and metaphor, working by the kinetic
energy of public speech. Examples are Bertolt Brecht, Mayakovsky,
Sol Funaroff, Langston Hughes, César Vallejo in Spain,
Take This Cup From Me.
3. Poetry similar to the
second type above but with a quieter voice, more personal,
direct fact-to-face speech rather than public oratory. Examples
are Nazim Hikmet, Otto René Castillo, Roque Dalton,
Claribel Alegría, Maria Aliger, Anna Swir, Joy Harjo
sometimes, Carl Sandburg, Luis J. Rodríguez often,
Faiz Ahmed Faiz.
4. Poetry that derives
from or consciously imitates folk song. Examples include Brecht
(sometimes), Thomas McGrath (sometimes), José Martí,
Hugh MacDiarmid occasionally, Langston Hughes, Naomi Replansky
5. Poetry that is essentially
traditional or classical lyric in tone (whether or not employing
the external forms--sonnets, quatrains, etc.). Examples are
Thomas McGrath (most characteristically), Louis Aragon, Miguel
Hernández, Rafael Alberti, Mao Tse-tung [or Mao Zedong],
William Blake (in the shorter lyric poems), Rubén Darío,
Yannis Ritsos, Nancy Morejón, Don Gordon, Olga Cabral,
6. Poetry that communicates
by its rhetorical strength, poetry of ecstatic utterance.
Similar to type 2 above but with more elevated language. Examples
are William Blake (in the "prophetic" poems), Léopold
Senghor, Walt Whitman, Kenneth Fearing, Yannis Ritsos in some
of his longer poems, Anuradha Mahapatra, Joy Harjo sometimes,
Dennis Brutus, Janice Mirikitani, Muriel Rukeyser.
7. Poetry that communicates
mainly by intellectual argument or statement. Examples are
W.H. Auden, Edwin Rolfe, Jack Beeching.
8. Poetry that is documentary
or journalistic in tone and method. Examples are Agostinho
Neto, Javier Heraud, Leonel Rugama, Zoe Anglesey (often),
Yannis Ritsos (sometimes), Anna Swir (sometimes), Nazim Hikmet
especially in his book-length poem Human Landscapes From
9. Poetry that works by
humor or satire, or by an overall humorous or satirical tone.
Examples include Kenneth Patchen (often), Thomas McGrath now
and then, Kenneth Fearing from time to time, Mayakovsky often.
Obviously none of the poets
named above wrote purely in the manners or styles outlined
here. All have written poetry that fluidly combines the various
qualities or approaches described above , and are certainly
not limited to the possibilities given here. The above list
is, again, intended to suggest some of the existing possibilities,
not to limit or define rigidly.
us state here for the record that political correctness, understood
properly, is a good thing.
The expression "politically
correct" originally meant "politically (and/or ethically/morally)
the right thing to do." It became a little confusing,
sometimes, to talk about what was "politically right"
because it sounded a little bit like "the political
right" (who are, of course, politically wrong). So people
got into the habit of saying "politically correct"
instead, which sounded a little pompous sometimes but tended
to be less confusing.
To write poetry with political
content that is left-wing, working- class, populist, or of
a similar nature, is the right thing to do.
examples above make it clear that it is thoroughly possible
to write poetry that has progressive political content and
that is well-written. The fact is that left-wing political
poetry, taken as a whole, is better poetry than poetry
in which the poet has tried to leave politics out of it, or
in which the poet has deliberately written from a right-wing
perspective (I suppose a few examples of the latter do exist).
We should have no hesitation
about saying this--not, obviously, as absolute decrees from
Olympus, but as acts of affirmative belief:
Carl Sandburg wrote better poetry
than Ezra Pound. Muriel Rukeyser wrote better poetry than
Thomas McGrath wrote better
poetry than Robert Lowell. Langston Hughes wrote better poetry
than Wallace Stevens. Gwendolyn Brooks wrote better poetry
than Marianne Moore.
Mayakovsky wrote better poetry
than Akhmatova or Mandelstam. Brecht wrote better poetry than
Rilke. Otto René Castillo and Leonel Rugama wrote better
poetry than Octavio Paz.
Etheridge Knight wrote better
poetry than John Berryman. Sharon Doubiago and Joy Harjo and
Dale Jacobson and Luis Rodríguez and Nellie Wong write
better poetry than Jorie Graham or Marvin Bell or C. K. Williams
or Billy Collins or Sharon Olds.
We don't need the ruling class
(or its representatives in arts and letters) to tell us whether
or not we're good poets. The record of our poetry, and the
history from which it arises, speaks for itself. We reject
"literary" standards that preclude politics as acceptable
or essential subject matter.
We belong in the real world
of the living--breathing, changing, revolutionary--and the
real world (and the poetry that grows from it) is the only
answer we need give.