The Pitfalls of Outright Political Poetry

This post is inspired by an essay I wrote about June Jordan’s Kissing God Goodbye, in which I address some of these issues by looking at how she manages the problems. That essay will soon appear here (as soon as it’s turned in), but in the meantime, and as a way to clarify my own thinking on the subject, I offer the following thoughts on pitfalls facing political poetry.

“Political” requires some definition, for which I’ll steal my own introductory paragraph:

Every poet claims that poetry is political – or at least that the act of writing poetry is a political act – no matter what the poem’s contents are. Jane Hirschfield, Richard Hugo, David Orr, Susan Stewart, and Stephen Dunn are just a few of the poets investigated this semester who wrote or intimated this idea. The statement that poetry is political requires a certain understanding of the “political,” meaning an exercise and projection of the voice in the face of the vast ease of being silent. This idea, that saying what needs to be said – whether about a white spider on a sprig of Queen Anne’s Lace, or about the unequal gender treatment in our current society – is a political act opens more than just poetry to political statement, but all fields of art. As a result, the question of which writing is political, and which is not, becomes very important. To hazard one possible boundary, writing which does not offer some access to Truth, or which deliberately obscures Truth (or truth), falls on the far side of the political; these kinds of writing result in either apathetic consumerism, or worse, outright propaganda. Much popular music falls into these categories. The reader (that’s you) may object that even apathetic consumerism or outright propaganda fall somewhere on the political spectrum, and the author (me) may agree. In that case, let us use “political” – in terms of writing and poetry at least – for the positive – seeking awareness and Truth – end of the spectrum, while the previous terms (apathetic and propagandist) can apply to the other, obstructive end.

1 – The Outright Rant

The danger here is related to the following, but leads to it as opposed to being it. The outright rant often forgoes any critical discussion of the political statement being made by the artist. There is a danger here of falling into the same tone or blindness of the apathetic or propagandist.

2 – Alienating Readers

Of course, if the reader does not at least initially buy into reading the poem, then the only audience the speaker is speaking to is the one which agrees with him/her. The danger here is in undermining the role of poetry which points to specific problems and their understanding(s).

3 – Political Sentimentality

Another way of alienating the reader, this pitfall is different in that it appeals directly to the sensibilities of friendly/likewise-thinking politics. As with any melodrama, this is often a result of overstatement, and the Outright Rant often falls into this category, as do manifestos.

4 – Overlooking the Poetic

This problem almost always accompanies the Outright Rant, and the accusation has often been leveled at baldly political poetry. The danger is that the emotions and political persuasion of the poet/writer get in between the writer and his/her craft. If craft fails, then so does every element of the poem, no matter how important the content.


What are your thoughts? Comments are open.