Yes, you can write political poetry

Two op eds – one in the New York Times book review section and one in the Los Angeles Times editorial section – appeared yesterday. The gist in each is that we poets and other artists need to stop avoiding writing or producing other forms of art about politics. We must use our voices to provide the meaning for all that’s happening in our world these days – as offensive as it might me.
The last time I wrote a poem along these lines was after the buildings collapsed on September 11, 2001 – that is until I did the Robert Lee Brewer poem a day challenge this past November. I found myself writing one political poem after another. That became the most important subject for me in response to a lot of the prompts the Writer’s Digest poetry editor put out, and now I feel validated. While Brewer kept admonishing us to  “poem nicely,” I even ignored this admonition. And I suspect I’ll continue to do so.
I’ve copied both articles verbatim here and hopefully acknowledged the authors and accompanying illustration creators correctly. I hope you’ll find these articles as inspiring and encouraging as I did. Let’s all use our voices to show our true feelings about what’s really  going on in this world today.


Political Poetry Is Hot Again. The Poet Laureate Explores Why, and How.

Credit:Javier Jáen

By Tracy K. Smith

In the mid-1990s, when I was a student of creative writing, there prevailed a quiet but firm admonition to avoid composing political poems. It was too dangerous an undertaking, one likely to result in didacticism and slackened craft. No, in American poetry, politics was the domain of the few and the fearless, poets like Adrienne Rich or Denise Levertov, whose outsize conscience justified such risky behavior. Even so, theirs weren’t the voices being discussed in workshops and craft seminars.

Maybe it was our relative political stability that kept Americans from stepping into the fray. Perhaps America’s individualism predisposed its poets toward the lyric poem, with its insistence on the primacy of a single speaker whose politics were intimate, internal, invisible. Then came the attacks on the World Trade Center in September 2001, and the war in Iraq, and something shifted in the nation’s psyche.

I keep coming back in my mind to some of the first poems published after 9/11, the worst among them written in the heat of righteous rage. Frank Bidart published “Curse” in the spring 2002 issue of The Threepenny Review. As the title suggests, the poem reads as a rant directed, perhaps, at the architects of the terror:

May what you have made descend upon you. 
May the listening ears of your victims their eyes their


enter you, and eat like acid 
the bubble of rectitude that allowed you breath.

What satisfaction a poem like this offers lies in its rage, the good tongue-lashing it doles out. But the fact that it could be spoken just as plausibly by the relative of an attack victim as by someone setting out to perform an act of terror goes a long way toward highlighting the vicious cycle rage sets into motion. Bidart is a poet of such nuance and particularity that I’m tempted to believe he may have written “Curse” to highlight this very fact. Though it’s also possible he was simply indulging a basic human urge.

In the intervening years, political poetry, even here in America, has done much more than vent. It has become a means of owning up to the complexity of our problems, of accepting the likelihood that even we the righteous might be implicated by or complicit in some facet of the very wrongs we decry. Poems willing to enter into this fraught space don’t merely stand on the bank calling out instructions on how or what to believe; they take us by the arm and walk us into the lake, wetting us with the muddied and the muddled, and sometimes even the holy.

Credit: Javier Jáen

As radical as empathy and imagination can be, these qualities exist in the mind. But there is also a poetic language of embodied experience, one that uses poetry to seek out the body. In “Feeld,” the trans poet Jos Charles bends language, via willful spelling, to a place where it must be parsed slowly, struggled through, read not so much with the brain as the mouth. Language becomes a felt thing, a terrain to be crossed. The title itself toys with such a transformation, the word feeld being a marriage, perhaps, of feelfelt and field. Reading lines like “i care so / much abot the whord i cant / reed / it marks mye bak / wen i pass / with / a riben in mye hayre,” I can’t help feeling that the body — itself a shifting and malleable possibility — is the target for these poems.

Through the strange labor of deciphering the text, I come to understand that Charles is transmitting an experience that I must allow to travel from her body into mine. When I do, the distance between us alters. It grows smaller and strangely charged. I’m made to realize that the very vernacular of the poems also tampers with history; it announces a continuum where Chaucer and 19th-century enslaved blacks and a 21st-century white trans woman seem quite effortlessly to share a lexicon.

Justin Phillip Reed, whose “Indecency” received the 2018 National Book Award in poetry, writes close to the flesh. His poems take up the body in desire and violence, and they do so by thrusting the reader into a stark visceral encounter with their material. The poem “Portrait With Stiff Upper Lip” is graphically rendered so that it can’t be read line by line; the page must be turned, repositioned so that text, overlapping and running every which direction, can be seen. Beyond typography, the poem asks the reader to take on the physical and emotional sense of a black man hearing himself, or someone like him, discussed via fragments. A reader staggers through a field of statements like “looks like planet of the apes” “probably has / a huge” “probably has a parent” “in / prison” “NO” “[in / the / pen]” “I’ve never had” “with a really hot BLKguy.” The reader, dragged forward yet afraid to keep reading, is made to feel caught in a hostile gaze, shoved around by heedless voices.

An even more radical use of the body as the poem’s site of operation can be found in CAConrad’s somatic poetics, which the poet describes as “a poetry which investigates that seemingly infinite space between body and spirit.” This is poetry rooted in actual rituals involving nature, crystals, meditation and interactions with strangers. It is a response to the cruelties of the “rational” world, a world where, as CAConrad recounts it, in 1998 the poet’s boyfriend was bound, gagged, tortured, raped, doused in gasoline and set on fire. And it’s worth considering that ritual might be one means of recovering from a world of such unrelenting cruelty — that ritual, rather than reason, can foster moments of healing like the one in this passage from “Pluto.3,” from CAConrad’s collection “While Standing in Line for Death”:

even when we have
forgotten where we
are love finds us just
sticks us
sobbing […]
saying no doesn’t matter you can’t say no for long

CAConrad’s poems invite the reader to become an agent in a joint act of recovery, to step outside of passivity and propriety and to become susceptible to the illogical and the mysterious.

Take Evie Shockley’s “semiautomatic,” which grapples with the violent imprint America has made upon black bodies through the ages. The poem “supply and demand” shines a light on the absurdity of merely thinking about outrageous injustice:

the more black boys you have, the more you want.
you act like we’re swimming in black boys.
you can’t keep black boys in your pocket.
if you had a million black boys, what would you do with them?
do you think we’re made of black boys?

A reader can very clearly see the work Shockley has asked “black boys” to do in her poem. They are to stand in for a commodity, something exhaustible. This ought to ring false, wildly absurd; however, two lines from the latter half of the poem abruptly change my relationship to the work as a whole: “you don’t just find black boys lying in the street,” and “black boys don’t grow on trees.” Here, something akin to muscle memory disrupts my strategy for negotiating the poem. Call it the collective memory of Michael Brown’s body lying in the street, and of the terrible yet familiar photographs of black victims of lynch mobs hanging from trees. I can no longer
second-guess the poem. Here I thought it was only teasing, but it has caught up to me and knocked me to the ground.

Wordsworth’s description of “emotion recollected in tranquillity” is sometimes cited as shorthand for what poets refer to as the lyric “I,” the poet’s vehicle for private, meditative reflection. So what becomes of the lyric “I” if poems are not so much reflecting as enacting? I suggest that lately it seems concerned with seeking revelation not in privacy, but in community. Not in the meditative mind but in bustling bodies in shared space, in the transactions our physical selves are marked and marred by. The lyric “I” at this very moment is not alone, like the speaker of Bidart’s “Curse,” who hurls invective into the ether. Rather, it is speaking to a large, shifting, contradictory, multivalent body that is not guaranteed to hear or even to agree. Still, the “I” speaks. It is speaking at once from and to something like America.

Tracy K. Smith is the United States poet laureate and the author, most recently, of the collection “Wade in the Water.”


The news media report events. It’s left to the artists to ascribe meaning

The news media report events. It's left to the artists to ascribe meaning
Guernica, 1937 (oil on canvas) by Pablo Picasso. (Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia)

In the late 1930s, amid a global economic collapse, the rise of fascism in Germany, Italy and Japan, and an ugly U.S. nationalism that targeted asylum-seeking immigrants, abstract artists working in New York pondered the perennial question: What is the duty of the artist in troubled times?

The question was not academic. With thousands of Nazi sympathizers marching through Midtown Manhattan, Boston teenagers reenacting Kristallnacht by attacking Jewish-owned businesses, and politicians and preachers spewing messages of hate, the bonds of rational society were unraveling. And many feared that as bad as things were, the worst might be yet to come.

There seemed to be no way to escape a paralyzing sense of foreboding. And yet it was incumbent upon the artist to do just that, to rise above the daily headlines — which dancer Martha Graham said affected every muscle in the body — to transform and clarify the world they inhabited.

It wasn’t easy. When one is in the midst of tectonic historical shifts it is nearly impossible to grasp their significance, much less their outcome. And yet the artists in New York in the 1930s, and later in the 1940s when the full horror of those times became excruciatingly clear, found a way.

Art can take up residence in our minds and hearts in a way a headline cannot.

Today, in our own troubled world, artists from Los Angeles to Beijing, Moscow to Rio are grappling with similar questions. How does one write, paint, compose or perform works that describe this age without being consumed by it, without producing mere propaganda? How does one convey the simultaneous confusion and conviction, the anger and concomitant longing for calm — in short, the irrationality — with any degree of certainty? And how does one project through art a better path when the route is constantly shifting?

Faced with such a difficult task, many artists wonder if they are obliged to be chroniclers of their times. During periods of war, social strife, economic upheaval, massive industrial or technological change, is it the duty of the artist to record and reflect that chaos?

Yes it is, in part because it is impossible for a true artist to do otherwise.

Artists may work in isolation, but they are intrinsically messengers, their works communications. They also exist in a state of hyper-receptivity because every encounter and experience might produce material for the next sentence, song, photograph or canvas. Short of living in a soundproof windowless box, especially in an age such as ours, it is impossible for an artist to blot out the world.

But another, more important reason an artist must confront his or her time is that historically art and artists have explained and challenged, and that combination has produced greater understanding.

In the 1930s and 1940s, newspaper headlines, cinema newsreels, radio broadcasts and public service posters disseminated information around the clock. But those reports chronicled events. It was left to artists to ascribe meaning.

A young James Jones wrote his first novel, “From Here to Eternity,” describing the wreckage of lives upended by war. Oscar Hammerstein’s 1940 lyrics for “The Last Time I Saw Paris” evoked for generations the melancholy felt by those forced to flee Nazi advances in France. And two painters bookended the traumas of the 1930s and 1940s in their works: Picasso, with “Guernica,” which depicted the 1937 Nazi attack on the Basque capital of that name and the first “total” air raid in history, and Jackson Pollock, with his “drip” paintings 10 years later. In the wake of World War II’s atrocities, from Auschwitz to Hiroshima, Pollock painted the world as it was, a world destroyed but not irrevocably so.

Today, in our own world of blogs, bots and perpetual “breaking news,” it is left to artists to cut through the deafening noise as their forebears did in the middle of the last century — in a search for meaning and, most particularly in our case, in the service of truth.

Art can do that. Art can take up residence in our minds and hearts in a way a headline cannot. Songs, poems, paintings and film provoke, console, elucidate and elevate. It is up to each artist to find a way, and they must try. In the early 1950s, amid the Korean War and Joe McCarthy’s political witch hunts, painter Grace Hartigan said of her work, “I try to make some logic out of the world that has been given to me in chaos…. The fact that I know I am doomed to failure — that doesn’t deter me in the least.”

Hartigan and her fellow painters spent years searching for the best way to convey their era, and realized they could no longer rely on the literal people, places and things that had occupied artists for centuries. They needed to start from scratch, to find new images — a new visual language — to reflect and explain the time because nothing that had been employed before could possibly describe the devastation the world had experienced. In their studios alone, faced with a blank canvas, each painted the only thing they could trust at that broken moment — their own nature. It was a difficult personal journey, but it was not unlike the explorations that expanded the geographic reach of humankind. The artists who would become known as the Abstract Expressionists traveled so far inside themselves that they discovered a universe, and in so doing, helped a ravaged world recover by creating a new way to see.

Before his suicide in the spring of 1948, the French poet and playwright Antonin Artaud wrote a kind of memorandum to artists trying to navigate their way in a hostile world:


Of the writer, of the poet

Is not to shut himself up like a coward in a text, a book, a magazine

from which he will never emerge

But on the contrary to go out

Into the world

To jolt

to attack

The mind of the public

If not

what is he for?

And why was he born?

Mary Gabriel is the author, most recently, of “Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement that Changed Modern Art.”


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