Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Political poetry and stuff...

Been thinking recently about the vexed problem of how to write about the political situation of the present age. I had a poem accepted and printed in The Robin Hood Book, one which was a cut-up including the words of Bob Diamond, CEO of RBS and a commentary on a picture by Paul Klee. Now, that is definitely political - its intent is at least partly satirical - but its other, and perhaps major, impulse, is aesthetic. The mixture of two languages - corporate speechifying and art crit - is what interested me as much as any message it had.

Being in such an avowedly political anthology, however, has made me think about how poetry can be 'political'. I have a great deal of sympathy for the position of George Oppen, who gave up poetry rather than become a mouthpiece for a political ideology. Poetry is about language, primarily; and its duty is to language not to ideology. Oppen's poems nevertheless have a sympathy for, and involvement with, 'the small nouns' and with the ordinary life of the planet; but they're not trying to impose an idea of the world onto the world. The same is true of Charles Reznikoff, whose documentary-style are incredibly moving without ever trying to impose a meaning, or indeed a feeling, onto the reader.

This is often what's missing from political poetry. A lot of political poetry seems preachy to me. I often find myself agreeing with the sentiment, disagreeing with the way it's stated. Besides which, it's often stating the bleeding obvious: capitalism is bad, poverty's bad, let's all get together in solidarity and fight The Man or The System.

Ultimately, what I like about the Objectivists, including Lorinne Neidecker, and the English poet Elaine Randall, is that their poetry allows the voice of the other through the words of the poem. They take a step back from imposing their meaning on the world; they're looking for what the world can say to them.

It's not the only way to be political, though. I was rereading Ian MacMillan's The Er Barnsley Seascape Poems yesterday: a sequence that is as political as it is funny, that sets up the absurd notion of Barnsley as a seaside town, celebrates the non-word 'er' and manages to be very moving and angry about the decline of Yorkshire mining communities all at the same time. His poetry can often be very funny, and sometimes that's all it is, but often the humour comes barbed with a political edge that makes it catch on your mind and sympathies like a fishhook.

Politics isn't just about ideas; though ideas are important. It's also about the way we live together. Poetry isn't always the best place to preach ideas; but it can be about how we live together. That, to me, is where political poetry is at its most effective, and that's where I'd like my poetry to be. On the side of the 'small nouns' not the big imposing ideas.

1 comment:

Aidan Semmens said...

I was having this discussion, or something very like it, with a couple of other poets the other day. My answer to the question put by one of them, "How can I write a political poem?" was twofold, only superficially paradoxical.
1 How can you write a non-political poem?
2 If you have something you want strongly to say about a current situation, poetry is probably not the way to say it. Write an essay, a newspaper article, a letter, a blog, a tweet, a short story, a comedy routine, a cartoon, a graffito first - they're all better vehicles than poetry for propaganda or polemic.
I think the best poetry starts out (and in most cases probably remains) as an internal dialogue, a way of working out your own thoughts. This can hardly be apolitical, in the sense that it's about your relationship with existence and the world; but if it isn't nuanced and at some level uncertain, I wouldn't call it poetry.
In politics it's often necessary (or seems so) to preach: in poetry, preaching is an instant killer.