Political Poetry: From A Poet's Glossary
political poetry: Poetry of social concern and conscience, politically engaged poetry. The feeling often runs high in the social poetry of engagement, especially when it is partisan. Poets write on both sides of any given war, defend the State, attack it. All patriotic and nationalistic poetry is by definition political. Political poetry, ancient and modern, good and bad, frequently responds vehemently to social injustice. Thus the poet is Jeremiah crying out to the assembly to witness the folly, unprecedented in both West (Cyprus) and East (Kedar), of a people who have forsaken the fountain of living waters for the stagnant water at the bottom of a leaky cistern. The Lamentations of Jeremiah, a series of poems mourning the desolation of Jerusalem and the sufferings of her people after the siege and destruction of the city and the burning of the Temple by the Babylonians, is also a political poem.
Strabo came up with the label stasiotika (“stasis-poems”) for Alcaeus’s partisan songs, political poems, which are propagandistic poems of civil war and exile, accounts of his political commitments. The premise of political poetry is that poetry carries “news” or information crucial to the populace. Political poetry is a poetry self-consciously written inside of history, of politics. It responds to external events. “Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry,” W. H. Auden famously decreed in his elegy for W. B. Yeats, and so, too, we might say that the madness of any country’s brutality has often wounded its poets into a political response in poetry. “I stand as a witness to the common lot, / survivor of that time, that place,” Anna Akhmatova wrote in 1961. Behind the poem in quest of justice, these lines from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (1623): “our size of sorrow, / Proportion’d to our cause, must be as great / As that which makes it.”
There is an ephemeral quality to a lot of political poetry—most of it dies with the events it responds to—but a political poem need not be a didactic poem. It can be a poem of testimony and memory. For the best political poems of the twentieth century, I think of Vahan Tekeyan’s poems of the Armenian genocide; of the Spanish Civil War poet Miguel Hernandez’s haunting prison poems, especially “Lullaby of the Onion” (1939); and the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet’s equally poignant prison poems, especially “On Living” (1948) and “Some Advice to Those Who Will Spend Time in Prison” (1949); of Bertolt Brecht’s World War II poems and Nelly Sachs’s Holocaust poems. I think of the Italian poet Cesare Pavese’s testimonies to ordinary people in trouble, Hard Labor (Lavorare stanca, 1936), and Pablo Neruda’s epic testament, Canto General (1950). I think of the many poems of indictment and summons, of land and liberty, collected in the Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka’s breakthrough anthology, Poems of Black Africa (1975).
There is a strong tradition in England of political poems. Edmund Spenser’s Complaints (1591) takes aim at social and political targets. John Milton wrote a series of pro-Cromwellian short poems in the 1640s and ’50s. Some of John Dryden’s greatest poetry was written in response to events, such as his two-part political satire Absalom and Achitophel (1681, 1682). William Wordsworth’s political poems are among his best, such as his sonnet “To Toussaint L’Ouverture” (1803), though a few of his late patriotic poems are also among his worst. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s "The Mask of Anarchy" (1819), which was “Written on the Occasion of the Massacre at Manchester” (“I met Murder on the way — / He had a mask like Castlereagh”), is a frankly political poem that always gives me a chill. Elizabeth Barrett Browning published two striking books of political poetry during her Italian sojourn, Casa Guidi Windows (1850) and Poems Before Congress (1860). The most popular Victorian poet, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, never distinguished between the personal and the political, the private and the public.
Political poetry has always seemed somewhat suspect in American literary history. “Our wise men and wise institutions assure us that national political events are beyond the reach of ordinary, or even extraordinary, literary sensitivity,” Robert Bly writes. Yet there is a strong underground tradition of the poetry of engagement, which we might also call the poetry of citizenzry. This runs from Walt Whitman’s political poems of the 1850s, which prefigure Leaves of Grass, and John Greenleaf Whittier’s Anti-Slavery Poems (1832–1887), to leftist poets of the 1930s (Kenneth Fearing, Edwin Rolfe, Muriel Rukeyser). The Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War enraged poets, and, as Bly points out, some of the most inward poets, such as Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, and Galway Kinnell, wrote some of the best poems against the Vietnam War. Most poetry of the 1940s and ’50s shunned politics, but Thomas McGrath (“Ode for the American Dead in Korea,” retitled in the early 1970s “Ode for the American Dead in Asia”) and Kenneth Rexroth (“A Christmas Note for Geraldine Udell,” 1949) bucked the trend. For forty years, Adrienne Rich was one of the most outspoken political poets in late twentieth-century American poetry, a model for a generation of political and activist poets. She went through several phases in relationship to polemics. She proposed a position that resists didacticism in “Power and Danger: Works of a Common Woman” (1978), her introduction to a collection of poems by Judy Grahn:
No true political poetry can be written with propaganda as an aim, to persuadeothers “out there” of some atrocity or injustice (hence the failure, as poetry, of so much anti-Vietnam poetry of the sixties). As poetry, it can come only from the poet’s need to identify her relationship to atrocities and injustice, the sources of her pain, fear, and anger, the meaning of her resistance.
Excerpted from A Poet’s Glossary by Edward Hirsch. Copyright © 2014 by Edward Hirsch. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.