Political poetry. Protest poetry. Resistance poetry. Civic poetry. Poetry of witness.
These terms, while somewhat distinct, all reflect a poet’s impulse to express a political self, to be, by extension, a “political poet,” a “protest (or resistance or civic) poet,” a “poet of witness.” But is it possible—or even desirable—to separate our political self from our personal self? If not, that is, if the personal is both poetical and political, can we conclude, then, that the poetical is always political? Is every poem a political poem?
Stephen Dunn, in “The Good and Not So Good” chapter of Walking Light: Memoirs & Essays on Poetry, suggests “yes” in his convincing articulation of the political poem’s, and poet’s, objective:
“The good poem may be political, but is more interested in understanding the dynamics of any human situation than it is in effecting change. Nevertheless it is a desirable, subversive act to replace what passes for truth with a more accurate/deep approximation, whether the subject is a dinner party or poverty. Precision, therefore, is more radical than passion, though precision without passion might be still another definition of a not so good poem.
“The poet distracted by the possibility of effecting change is looking too far ahead to be a trustworthy witness of what’s in front of him/her. It has long been said that a poet must have vision. The good poet’s vision is of the here and now. The world, properly seen, becomes the future” (35).
Here, Dunn also points to a common pitfall of the political poem: the poet turns the poem into a podium. When a poet tells the reader what to think and how to feel instead of inviting curiosity, contemplation, inquiry with no rigid point of view, no right answer, no conclusion, the poem cannot be an act of discovery for the poet or the reader. Stephen Dunn again: “Your poem effectively begins at the first moment you’ve surprised or startled yourself” (137). And before Dunn, Robert Frost wrote, in “The Figure a Poem Makes,” from The Robert Frost Reader: Poetry and Prose: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. For me the initial delight is in the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew” (440).
To remember something we didn’t know we knew. Illogical? Maybe not. Maybe Frost understood that the poet must tap into a field of universal knowledge or collective consciousness—call it “universal mind,” the poet’s individual mind like one wave in an eternal ocean. Maybe Frost understood, too, that the poet must forget what the mind has learned. No matter the subject matter, no matter how intimate with or distant from it, the poet must stay in the question of it. Consider my invented etymology for “question”: quest + -ion. The suffix “-ion” means “the result of.” The result of a quest is a question. A poem is a quest—but not for an answer. That act of discovery—for both poet and reader—is, instead, the revelation or reflection or remembrance of one’s own humanity.
So, to write a political poem, to be a credible witness of the humanity of another person, a people, a nation, the world, the poet must explore and illuminate his or her own oppression, suffering, heartbreak. To write any poem, the poet must write, not from a lectern or soapbox, not from an op-ed page, not from a mountain top, but from eye level.
“Poetry is a political act because it involves telling the truth,” June Jordan said in a 1998 interview. As we enter this critical election year, 2020, in a post-truth era dominated by “alternative facts,” I hope you’ll join me this January to explore our role as literary citizen, in POETIC : POLITIC, a 4-week webinar. For more information: https://zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_M-CH8k_QQTO_R61hP1K5zA.
Do you have something say about poetry? An essay on being a poet, tips for poets, or poetry you love? TrishHopkinson.com is now accepting pitches for guest blog posts.
Marj Hahne is a freelance editor and writing teacher, and a 2015 MFA graduate from the Rainier Writing Workshop, with a concentration in poetry. She has performed and taught at over 100 venues around the country, as well as been featured on public radio and television programs. Her poems have appeared in literary journals, anthologies, art exhibits, and dance performances.
YouTube channel: https://bit.ly/2LxHUG2