Poets, Poetry and Politics: Some thoughts on the writing of political poetry

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‘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.

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Baking, & Aleppo

Shauna Robertson

 

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

mine at last

 

 

The Shadow Factory

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The arrival and ritual opening of a box of newly published books is always an exciting moment. And this time we were especially pleased to see that the printers had padded the cargo with paper rather than bubble wrap.

The Shadow Factory is our Deb’s fourth poetry collection from Indigo Dreams Publishing, and its evocative title is straight out of her childhood in 1960s Bristol. ‘As a young girl I was fascinated by the rollsign of the 98 bus that gave its destination as The Shadow Factory,’ she explains, ‘but as the stop we had to get off at came before the terminus, I never got to see it, and an intimation of certain disappointment prevented me from asking what was made there. As a result, The Shadow Factory became a warehouse of wishes and unrealised dreams, a metaphor for life and death, and eventually this collection of poems that explore childhood, memory and the twilight of those household gods we call parents.’

Other poets have had complimentary things to say about our new addition.

Pascale Petit, who awarded the poem Oystercatchers 1st prize in the 2018 Plough Prize Short Poem competition says: Every word is weighted. Although nothing is explicit, something important is being enacted, and the epigraph by Camus adds an anchor, so that we guess his are the words being taken to the sea and released from the heart. I kept coming back to this and getting more from it.’

And in her sensitive review, poetry film maker and novelist Lucy English says ‘The desire to find a place which is ‘not a leisurely stroll from the ice cream van,’ is a strong theme in this collection. [Harvey] comments on the natural world as if this, and not human life is the greater force … Landscape, animals and birds have an intrinsic beauty which she describes with care.’

To read a selection of the poems from The Shadow Factory, please click here.

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Writing Group Vacancies

 

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We still have a few vacancies in our new poetry writing group, the first meeting of which will be on Friday 22nd November 2019, from 10.00am – 1.00pm, upstairs in the Music Room of Bristol Folk House, 40a Park Street, Bristol, BS1 5JG.

The group will take place on the penultimate Friday of every month (bar October 2020), same time and venue, and the cost is £10 per session.

Dates booked for the first twelve months are as follows: 22nd November and 20th December 2019, and 24th January, 21st February, 20th March, 17th April, 22nd May, 19th June,  24th July, 21st August, 18th September, 16th October, and 20th November 2020.

We don’t require people attending to be at a specific level of expertise, although very inexperienced poets might be asked to submit a sample of their writing when they apply to join the group. What we do need from you is a willingness to improve, to write and read poetry widely, and to work towards getting your poems published.

If you’re interested and would like a further details, please contact us at admin@theleapingword.com.

 

Tracy K Smith at the Bristol Festival of Ideas

In these days of sweeping funding cuts, the chance to see top poets reading locally come along only a couple of times a year, yet I can think of no more valuable a way for poets to learn and be inspired than to listen to the best of their peers reading their work in person. So when I learnt that Tracy K Smith, the US poet laureate, was coming to Waterstones in Bristol as part of the Festival of Ideas, I seized the opportunity of seeing her.

Tracy K Smith

Most poets tend to write about a corner of their own experience or a particular interest – for example, you might think of yourself as  an eco-poet, or someone who is especially good at capturing what it means to be a survivor, or a poet suited to political declamation. Smith herself is known for poems about the body, focusing on intimacy, love, and sexuality, but her work also encompasses, apparently effortlessly, political poems of enormous sensibility and empathy, such as the sequence she read from her second collection, ‘Duende’, which gives voice to Ugandan women kidnapped by rebel commanders, and such vast subjects as … well, the universe.

‘I don’t have a great brain for science,’ she claimed, to a frankly disbelieving audience during her reading of her sequence ‘My God, it’s full of stars’ from her 2011 Pulitzer-prize winning collection, ‘Life on Mars’. But in case you’re starting to think her work might be altogether too rarified, the quote about stars is from Arthur C Clarke’s novel, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, proving that Tracy isn’t afraid to tangle with pop culture either. She even writes affectingly about that ultimate starman, David Bowie.

And as you wing out across the universe of Tracy’s poems, you are being lifted on the most perfectly pitched reading of them. I would urge any poet who wants to improve their delivery of their work to listen to her read. There are lots of videos on line, or you can buy a CD of Duende. Better still, go and hear her read in the flesh … though now her book tour has ended, you might have to fly to America for that.

 

Letting poems take their place in the world

When it comes to poems inspired by a certain area or landscape, that have a story to tell about that spot, being able to connect the poem to its place adds an extra, vital dimension.  I often go on walks with a site-specific poem in my pocket. I’ve taken U A Fanthorpe’s ‘Stanton Drew’ to the eponymous stone circles south of Bristol, and, as she urges, listened to the past’s long pulse. I’ve sat on Ted Hughes’ memorial stone near Taw Head on Dartmoor to recover from all the tussock-jumping required to get there and read aloud his wonderful litany, ‘Rain-Charm for the Duchy’. I’ve wept over Eliot’s Four Quartets in East Coker churchyard.

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Stanton Drew stone circles

Then there are the poems we write ourselves. It has be be said that going around sellotaping poems to lamp posts and telegraph poles isn’t practical. But now you can pin them to an online map of England and Wales, which is another, less polluting way of letting them take their place in the world.

Places of Poetry is led by poet Paul Farley and Professor Andrew McRae. The project is open to readers and writers of all ages and backgrounds, with the aim of prompting reflection on national and cultural identities in England and Wales through creative writing. Writers are invited to pin their poems to places on the map from 31st May to 4th October 2019, after which date it will be closed to new poems but remain available for readers. 

The site will also contain news about events and activities to promote the project and generate new writing. You can also follow Places of Poetry via social media (@placesofpoetry).

Places of Poetry is based at Lancaster and Exeter Universities, and funded by Arts and Humanities Research Council, The National Lottery Heritage Fund and Arts Council England.

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Ted the border collie at Ted Hughes’ memorial stone, Dartmoor