Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Poetry and Politics: Strange Bedfellows?

Great event at the Folger Shakespeare Library this past Monday: Terrance Hayes, Nick Flynn, Eileen Myles, and Edwin Torres reading in support of a new collection, State of the Union: 50 Political Poems.

I’d heard Flynn read part of his poem “Fire” on the Academy of American Poets Poetcast a while ago and found it stunning (little did I know that the podcast contained only about half of the whole poem; apparently the Academy didn’t want listeners to hear the c-bomb dropped in its hallowed recordings. Flynn apparently didn’t know this either; when I asked him about it Monday he said he hadn’t heard the Poetcast of his piece and didn’t know that it had run censored). The whole of it appeared in Tin House’s issue on the subject of evil a while back; it’s an amazing piece of work that's utterly chilling and humanizing of both captives and captors at Gitmo and Abu Ghraib.

I was curious to hear Flynn read, but the main reason I went was to see Terrance Hayes, who is writing some of the most exciting American poetry out there right now. Hayes draws on history and the language of both sermon and myth to explore the ways in which we’re both in thrall to the past and desperate to move beyond it. His collection Wind in a Box is rich, strange, and really funny, and the work he read Monday made me wish his new collection were coming out today. Some writers are not good readers of their own work (it’s always painful to go to a reading of work you love to find that the writer’s shyness or dry/forced delivery comes close to ruining the poems), but Hayes is a natural performer and was a pleasure to hear.

After the individual readings, one of the editors of the new anthology, Matthew Zapruder, led a panel discussion of the writers about the nature of political poetry—a combination that many regard with suspicion or downright dislike. Zapruder asked the poets why, and why a “political poet” is seen as such an odd creature in the U.S.

The poets kicked it around for a while, and fear of didacticism seemed to be the number one reason—creating a poetry that’s the political equivalent of the sentimental verse found on Hallmark cards. I can think of a few poets whose works has veered into that zone at times.

At some point Zapruder started to say how the issue is seen differently by poets in other countries, and Flynn interjected “That’s because they’d be put in jail.” A valid point. But I think what Zapruder was leading to is the point that in other countries, politics is seen as so central to a person’s being and such a major component of life that there’s not the disdain for it we often see in the U.S. A “political poet” in South America or Europe is any poet at all; labeling one as such would be a bit like the name of the old Department of Redundancy Department.

Part of the issue to me seems to be that poets and politicians mutually look down on each other; each group thinks it’s dealing with the more important matter. To some poets, the stuff of politics often seems too fleeting to muddy the hands with, and to politicians, much poetry seems incomprehensible or at least detached from real, contemporary concerns. There are so many celebrities now who dabble in politics; political dilettantism is rampant among artists. And there are plenty of political poems that, when you get to their core, seem satisfied with simple messages: war and sexism and racism are bad bad things.

If the job of the artist is to deepen the mystery, can a poem that makes an effective political argument really succeed as a poem? Thoughts?
And a couple of interesting thoughts on the matter here and here.


Brandon Shimoda said...

Dear M.C.,

This is a wonderful write-up on the State of the Union reading in D.C. The issue on the overlap between poetry and politics --- whether instructive, didactic, necessary, implied, etc. --- is one that needs to be continually discussed and thought through, for it seems as though the conversations themselves, in addition to the poems, are important to the cause and the possibilities for both.

I want to let you know about a "political poetry" blog that we at Wave Books have set up as a companion to the State of the Union anthology --- PoetryPolitic: A Blog in 50 Days, which started on September 15th and is running through election day. You can find it here: I hope that you find the work within to be useful and challenging to all of the questions above.

Thanks so much,

Brandon Shimoda
Wave Books, Seattle

M. C. Allan said...

thanks for stopping by, brandon. really enjoyed the session at the folger and will check out the connected blog soon.