Poetry and Politics

by lizard

I finally inquired about becoming an “official” contributing member of 4&20 Blackbird after the udder failure of an unnecessarily long comment thread caused me to reevaluate how I personally broadcast my beliefs in this little corner of the blogosphere, and j-girl graciously responded with an invitation to join the lineup.

This reevaluation entailed asking myself what besides rantish diatribes can I contribute? Y’all have heard my various spiels, and therefore already know I’m a leftist who believes this country has slid so far right that democrats now act like good republicans. So in joining the crew, I want to switch it up a bit. I decided if this is a journal of Montana politics and culture, my contribution could be giving a little more attention to the culture aspect of 4&20.

To prove I’ve got the chops, here’s a quick summation of my pedigree: I finished my BA in literature/creative writing at UM in 2003. One professor in particular, Joanna Klink, made a strong impression on me. I was a relatively ignorant college undergrad, and for me Joanna’s workshops were laboratories of language where students like myself got to tinker and fiddle with words. As a poet, I am greatly indebted to her mentorship (and if you want, you can read one of her poems here)

Since 2003 I’ve been developing my poetic voice. Part of that development has been grappling with the role politics plays in my poetry. Generally speaking, the relationship between politics and poetry has long been a point of contention for many poets. For example, the question of how to respond to the Vietnam War ultimately poisoned the relationship between two poets, Denise Levertov and Robert Duncan. Robert thought Denise’s activism was undermining her poetic craft, and told her so. Their relationship never recovered.

I do think any poet who sets out to write an overt political poem about a certain subject is destined to write a shitty poem (I know this because I’ve made this mistake more than once). When it comes to the craft of poetry, I don’t think a poet should know exactly what the poem is going to be about before starting to write. Part of the writing process is following the creative impulse, and remaining open to wherever it might lead. So in that sense, politics can potentially overwhelm the creative impulse, and instead of poetry you may find yourself writing propaganda, which may sound something like this:

OBUMMER

don’t worry, you corpses of empire
you now die for a brown-skinned democrat
with a luminous smile, tongue glazed in honey
and a pledged narcotic called hope

his complexion was our inspiration
so who cares if more die from drone strikes
or kids in handcuffs get shot in the head
or the war on the poor drags on

the man has africa in his blood
and the seed of corporate greed on his lips
and the oratory chops of a skilled politician
selling his master’s agenda

don’t worry, you zombies of empire
you won’t see the war machine kill
or be forced to face up to reality if you
just keep on swallowing those hope pills

and the coup in honduras didn’t happen
and the sabers will rattle for iran
and barely a whisper ‘bout the war crimes of israel
because, fuck yeah, yes we can

*

A poem doesn’t have to be that blatant to be political. Ecologically speaking, humans across the globe are being threatened, and at the core of this ecological threat is the glaring fact that the resources we depend on are finite and running out. This reality makes poems about flowers, the sea, or a river inescapably political. Poets need to realize there is no escaping the political.

That doesn’t mean poets need to hammer this point home with every poem. On the contrary, poetry has the power to transcend the material constraints of our finite world, allowing us to commune with a higher realm where the intangible sparks of imagination and intuition exist. Poetry sustains the spirit, which is why cultures experiencing oppression and impoverishment often produce such powerful poems. Even in the face of unimaginable horror, poetry is there, forming the unspeakable into words. If you don’t believe me, obtain a copy of Against Forgetting; Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness edited by Carolyn Forché. It’s a phenomenal anthology of poems bearing witness to the war and violence of the past hundred years.

For me, poetry is a means of resistance. I believe, if left unchecked, unregulated capitalism, and the subservience of our political process to the hoarding impulses of extreme wealth, will consign the future of my children to cataclysm. For my own sanity I have to believe nothing is irreversible, but I have deep concerns the shell game our global economy is will continue its slow-motion collapse (for us, not them) while the stooges who ape for the money men keep dancing to their tune.
The following poem exemplifies how unpleasant political realities, like war, invades my personal life in ways I almost can’t control anymore. It’s the one poem I’ve had (sort of) published, at counterpunch’s online political journal.

CABIN IN THE WOODS

A simple A-frame cabin in the woods
ceiling swooping down like two drastic bird wings.

Drafty cracks let bites of winter sneak through
with single pane windows more like membranes
than efficient glassy barriers against the cold.

Feeding the fire, my wife observes, is like tending
to the hungry need of our infant son. Imagine,
she exclaims, if it was always like this, for us,
during winter.

Not yet, the inching darkness murmurs
like the creek outside gurgling along unseen
beneath thick sheets of ice.

We are doing this for fun; a weekend getaway
shitting in the outhouse and heating water
to clean the dirty dishes from last night’s meal.

We are not huddling before the flames to survive.
There are plenty of outlets for light, refrigeration,
and music from the speakers of a computer.

Such is our modern perch upon the precipice
that I recline in comfort reading a fantastical tale
about a sudden, dramatic abolishment of spark
negating in an instant the progress of combustion.

Always forgetting the proximity of implosion
I warm up our nice, combusting car outside
as we gather together our scattered belongings.

Red glowing embers die quietly like foreigners
in an occupied land, while at home in the land
of plenty, plenty go, sink, and disappear.

My wife will be disappointed that another poem
has stumbled toward this reality. I am sorry
but until it’s not true it will have to be remembered.

*

These two poems approach the same subject, but from very different directions.

“Obummer” is pure cynicism, sneering at the president’s political skills, and mocking the idea that a change of presidential skin color would translate into a change of direction for the nation. It also slaps anyone still holding out hope that the president will try to step us off the imperial cliff; it appears full steam ahead is all we’re going to get. This poem is a response to that.

“Cabin In The Woods” on the other hand goes to the trouble of setting up a nice little domestic scene, describing how discomforts, like cold drafts and shitting in an outhouse, are rendered almost quaint, considering modern amenities (like electricity, and quick transportation home when the weekend getaway of roughing it is over) are so easily accessible. It takes a conscious choice by the speaker to bring the discomforting reality of war into the poem. The concluding lines indicate the speaker believes there is a moral responsibility to remember what is happening as we go about living our lives.

The poetry I am drawn to doesn’t shy away from the world as it is, or as it should be.  I’m excited to be able to share some of my work here, and hopefully highlight other poets who I admire–locally, nationally, and internationally.

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  1. Hey, I probably know you! Maybe the UM MFA program will create a bunch of blogging radicals or sumpin’…

    • lizard19

      hey Jay, you probably do. after all, isn’t everyone only a few degrees of separation from each other in this town?

      and I’m going to be reaching out a few feelers to MFA folks, past and present, to see if i can’t get some good literary discussions going.

      i would love to highlight some local writers also, but i’m still trying to figure out the legalities of reproducing creative content.

      @pj: thank you. i hope to keep it interesting.

  2. pj

    Interesting post. I think what you say about mixing poetry and politics holds true for any art form.

  3. ROFL –

    I don’t think they’ll want you around too long if you keep criticizing The Great Leader in poem – LOL

    It’s blasphemy! The Messiah must not be taken lightly!

    From the conservative side of the blogosphere – welcome, and good luck –

    • JC

      Geez Eric, when you going to start paying attention? All of the writers here have criticized Obama from time to time. Haven’t you been listening to Gibbs and his prattle against the “professional left”? How much more professional can the left get than to hire on a few new bloggers here at 4&20?

      You guys get a good contract, lizard & Duganz? ROTFLWUT

      No? I’ll buy you coffee any day you want if’n you lay out a good Obama rant!

    • CFS

      What blog have you been reading? I think all the writers here criticize Obama fairly heavily… Maybe just not the criticisms you have.

      • in my case, 180 degrees differently. while repubs complain about too much government i think obama missed by a mile the mood of the people after bush.

        we were ready to punish health insurance weasels for their murderous greed, not reward them with their own bill.

        we were ready to punish ceo’s of big banks, not reward them with bail-outs.

        we were ready to end both wars immediately, not continue to play into the enemies hands by bleeding ourselves dry.

        we were ready to rebuild america’s infrastructures, not grease a few of the same old palms while workers sit idle.

        america was tired of rewarding bad behavior. but now that bush has been replaced with obama, we are simply too demoralized by how little the congress and the president tried to change, that we are dangerously close to handing ourselves over to simple minded bush policy again.

        as disappointed in obama and the democratic congress as i am, i cannot and will not allow that to happen without a fight.

  4. JC

    I like the imagery in your cabin in the woods poem, liz! Actually, it might have something to do with the fact that I live in an a-frame log cabin in a woods-to-be (reforesting a small piece of a glacial plain with native species, I am).

    Here’s a small pic of my home to go with your poem:

  5. everyone’s point of view is different. good honest writing needn’t be segregated by genre anymore. if it is honest and you do not care if it pleases any audience except yourself, it will be good. welcome to our unremunerated, often thankless, but necessary world of ours lizard. as you know, we all keep it real here.

    there is no coordination. we work independently. sometimes there is simpatico and sometimes we clash. that’s just how we roll. nobody tells anybody how to do anything here so it can get chaotic at times. do not expect people to throw roses at your feet and you will do fine.

  6. lizard19

    thanks pbear. i’m really excited to bring my love of poetry to the readership of 4&20. I was getting a little bored with myself anyway, so this opportunity to change up my approach is much appreciated.

    that “Obummer” poem I included in the post is incendiary, polemic, and not really effective, in my opinion. but it did capture my anger over foreign policy moves that have been made. and apparently it’s looked at as potential divisive fodder for the right, if eric’s comment is any indication.

    but the right is insane. they’ve regrouped under a haze of fear, hatred, and bigotry. BUT they wouldn’t be surging right now if it wasn’t for the tepid, half-ass policies of the obama administration.

    division within the ranks of the democratic party indicates, at least to me, there is still some thinking going on, on the left. the political writers I follow refuse to be dazzled by rhetoric. that is why gibbs tried to backhand them into line. the fact that obama is enshrining his predecessor’s abuses of office is despicable, and is being rightly pointed out by lots of politically honest (oxymoron?) writers.

    candidates are in a different boat. because this is an election year, and the nutjobs on the right are reaching their rabid crescendo, the only thing some candidates can do is distance themselves from controversy, which is why obama isn’t a universally welcome presence on the campaign trail.

    in regards to state politics, I think it’s preferable that democrats beat republicans. at the national level, I need to be convinced, with tangible actions, that democrats are capable of understanding why their policies have allowed the right to climb back into the race, and that they are willing to make the necessary adjustments.

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