‘Politicians deal with issues; poets deal with epiphanies.’ John Agard
What can we do – in these times of political, social and environmental crisis on both a national and an international scale – to address the urgent issues before us? ‘It is the duty of all poets, everywhere and at all times, to be dissident members of the permanent opposition,’ says Cork Poet, Theo Dorgan, and indeed, there are many poets who feel they have no choice but to embrace the political in their poetry, to take a side in the conflicts between the powerful and the powerless, the oppressor and the oppressed, and to raise a voice in and against a culture of silence.
Some poets see no division between poetry and politics. Power is generally reactionary and dehumanising and the poet, seeking to be fully human and writing for the just cause, is always on the other side. Chinua Achebe, who wrote extensively about the Nigerian Biafran war, pointed out that language itself is riddled with politics, prejudices and privilege: ‘Language is not neutral. It’s very much a political tool. It’s charged with prejudices. So, a poet who says “I’m not in politics” is not being realistic’. And for the Malawian poet, Jack Mapanje, there is no separating poetry and politics except from a position of privilege: ‘I consider the division often made between politics and poetry to be thin and contrived … Separating them is a luxury. Literature is about life.’
However, politics holds many temptations and traps for the unwary poet. Indeed, some find the relationship between poets, poetry and politics problematic or even dangerous. They might claim that political poetry is boring, or a contradiction in terms; that it’s propaganda, not poetry; that poets shouldn’t write what they don’t feel as their own; or that it attracts poets who lack self-awareness, whose motives are suspect.
The first objection is certainly familiar to anyone who goes to poetry and spoken word nights. One problem is that all too often poets start by stating the obvious and fail to deviate from that position. We’ve all seen the poet who gets up on the stage, adopts a declamatory tone and stance, says how much he or she hates a particular political figure, for example, often to a laugh of recognition, and then continues, for another three minutes, to say the same thing over and over again. He or she isn’t really engaging with poetry at all. No insightful or unusual connections are made and nothing new is being created in the mind of the audience members, who are merely listening to an iteration of their own conviction. Yet the American poet James Tate said ‘What we want from poetry is to be moved, to be moved from where we now stand. We don’t just want to have our ideas or emotions confirmed.’
This pitfall isn’t just confined to poems about politicians. The American poet, professor and critic Mark Halliday wrote: ‘I would never tell students “Don’t write about a political issue, or a disaster in the world, or evil.” But I would say let’s be aware that everyone in this room is against torture, everyone in this room is against the molestation of children – so to write expressing that moral view is going to be very boring.’
The American poets, W S Merwin and Robert Wrigley, both take issue with the danger of straying into the realm of dogma. Merwin was firmly of the opinion that the poet’s political conviction would not lead to the writing of poetry. ‘You start from the wrong place with political poetry,’ he said, ‘because you start by knowing too much, and so what you’re likely to write is propaganda.’ His fellow American poet and educator, Robert Wrigley, went into more detail: ‘My sense of poems, be they anti-war or pro-diversity, is that the poem’s motive is not something I can often know in advance, if it’s going to be any good. The poem needs to find its own way, it needs to take me along toward where it wants to go.’
With regard to poets not writing about what they don’t feel as their own, we would do well to heed Seamus Heaney, who was determined not to be used by any side during the Troubles, but to write the real as he understood it. In doing so, he kept safe not only his own integrity but the heart and the meaning of poetry: ‘There is no use coming to poets, either in Soviet Russia or northern Ireland, and expecting or ordering them to deliver a certain product to fit a certain agenda, for although they must feel answerable to the world they inhabit, poets, if they are to do their proper work, must also feel free.’ And if you think there’s not much difference between writing a good or a poor political poem than there is between writing any other good or poor poem, Michael Longley has this for you: ‘A bad poem is bad enough, but a bad poem about something as big as the [Ulster] Troubles is an impertinence and an offence.’
As for the final objection to political poetry, Judith Kitchen cautioned against the dangers of confusing cause with self. ‘It’s all too typical for contemporary poets to write as if they assume that the social importance of what they advocate – justice for women, the environment, the poor, etc. – gives importance to the self-identity of the poet, as if suffering can be borrowed.’ And Jayanta Mahapatra warned of the peril for the poet of the loss of humility: ‘A great danger we encounter, as poets away from direct participation in the affairs of the community, is that we take ourselves easily as the guardians of moral purity. I can always proclaim: Politics is dirty and the government is corrupt, but I as a poet am clean; my aims are beyond reproach. This… leads to a sort of vanity in the poet, an arrogance.’
So, is it possible to write political poetry that’s more than propaganda, more than the banging of a tired old drum? That’s not just a gobby, shallow, second cousin to another kind of cliché? The poet, David Constantine, says it is: ‘Poetry has in it, in its rhythms, its variousness, its contradictoriness, indeed in its beauty, an intrinsic power of revolt’ but then adds, ‘which the poet forfeits if he reduces the poem to the expression of a cause.’ A poet, then, reducing a poem to the expression of a cause has forgotten who she is and all she knows, forgotten her art and her craft, forgotten the power of poetry, what poetry can do, its possibilities.
We can agree that a good poem sits well on the page, and that its form is appropriate to its content. When you read it out loud, you’ll want to read it again because it sounds so good and it’s a pleasure to read. And it affects you emotionally, and at the same time it makes you think. And it gets physical with you. It’s well-crafted but subtly so, it doesn’t stink of craft, the different elements don’t detract from the whole but sing in unison, seductively. And it’s not an exercise in making a poem that works but is a bit dull really. There’ll be lines you’ll want to share and talk about with your friends, images that bring your imagination to life, you’ll take pleasure in its rhythms, you’ll want to copy it out, you’ll want to learn it by heart. It will fascinate you. It will feel like the mothership calling you home. It will make you want to go home, quickly, to write.
With a political poem the biggest problem, arguably, is the militant tendency of knowing before you begin what you think, and what you feel, and how (or why) that doesn’t change by the time you believe the poem’s written. As Nick Laird said: ‘You can’t write a political poem if it’s just about politics.’ So the main challenge for poets writing political poetry would seem to be to write about more than politics. This might include writing poems in which the politics is located not so much in the surface content but in the deeper meaning of the poem and the effect it has on the reader and audience.
The South African poet Gabeba Baderoon once told me that during Apartheid, poets in South African were united in writing poetry rooted in the political struggle for liberation. After the fall of Apartheid an argument developed about the future direction of poetry in the country. Some felt that the ending of Apartheid was just one stage in the struggle and that the straight down the line approach to poetry for liberation should be maintained; others, meanwhile, argued for a broadening of the definition of ‘politics’ and ‘struggle’ and the role of poetry, to include, in particular, the personal.
Gabeba Baderoon was in the latter camp and went to work with Palestinian women, collecting and writing with them poems about their love lives. She said that before someone can define another as an enemy, and before they can kill, rape, torture and rob, etc, they must first dehumanise the other, turn people into things. But if they know someone’s love stories, it’s not possible to deny their humanity; they have to acknowledge that the harm they are doing they are doing to people, to human beings.
I recently heard Frome-based poet Shauna Robertson read a poem titled: Baking, & Aleppo that inventively and skilfully intercuts lines from an article in The Guardian about the war in Syria with a BBC website recipe for gingerbread men. It’s a striking and original poem. It sounded to me, as she read it, like someone cooking and following a recipe whilst listening to the news report on the radio. The interplay of the news and the recipe works effectively on a number of different levels; not least, it continually surprises the reader/audience and breaks up the familiar expectation that would be experienced were you listening to only the war report. This cuts through our (unconscious) defences and restores to the report its capacity to shock. It also captures the sadness and impotence we feel, safe in our kitchens, about wars so many miles away.
Baking, & Aleppo
Shops were shuttered. Twisted tanks
and toppled buses blocked intersections.
The few people left on the city’s empty streets
sift together the flour, bicarbonate of soda.
These were the first days of August 2012.
Cinnamon and two teaspoons of ground ginger
scurried past with their heads down
and pour into the bowl of a food processor.
A heat haze shimmered over the road ahead,
add the butter, shrouding first an abandoned
army barracks then ransacked, smouldering factories
and blend until the mix looks like breadcrumbs.
The Syrian flags had been machine-gunned.
Copper bullet casings stir in the sugar.
Families had fled the area just hours before,
like confetti on rubbish-strewn pavements.
We drove past a hospital that rebel groups
were busy commandeering, lightly beat the egg.
The crackle of rifle fire, the thump of artillery
mix in the golden syrup and add to the food processor.
Troops and rebels gouged holes in the walls
of narrow-packed homes to use as rat-runs.
Pulse until the mixture clumps together.
Dressed in dishdashas with ammunition belts
strapped across their chests, a small number
of Islamic fighters had come to tip out the dough.
Knead briefly, wrap in cling-film and leave to chill.
As the ranks of the jihadists grew, line two baking trays
with greaseproof paper. Preheat the oven to 180C.
The rebels slowly thinned on a lightly floured surface.
Scud missiles rained down on the city, roll the dough out flat
and using cutters, press out the gingerbread men shapes.
As we stepped through the remains, cooking pots – some
full of food – sat on stove tops and laundry hung on rails.
The intimate worlds of communities once going about their days
and place on the baking tray, leaving a gap between them.
Husbands, fathers, sons and cousins bake until lightly golden-brown.
Islamic State was now in charge. Move to a wire rack to cool.
The front of the eye hospital was painted black. On a small ledge,
a dead infant girl. Add icing, edible glitter. Hundreds and thousands.
Note: Baking, & Aleppo is a collaged, found poem using text borrowed from two sources: A news article, Ground down by savagery – the agony of Aleppo, by Martin Chulov, The Guardian, 12 October 2016; and a recipe: Gingerbread men, BBC Food. Both are freely available in the public domain at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/oct/12/ground-down-by-savagery-the-agony-of-aleppo and https://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/gingerbread_men_99096 respectively
Political poetry quotes: Curtis, T. (ed) (1997) AS THE POET SAID… Poetry Pickings and Choosings from Dennis O’Driscoll’s Poetry Ireland Review Column. Poetry Ireland, Ltd. Dublin
This article, by Colin Brown and Deborah Harvey, was first published in issue 8 of the poetry magazine Raceme, autumn/winter 2019
Illustrations © Dru Marland