Thursday, July 27, 2006

Proposing a Redefinition of Political Poetry in the American Tradition

On the Poetry Foundation website's blog (or 'journal' as they prefer, rather snobbily, to call it), Stephen Young has been discussing his participation in the Krakow poetry seminars in Poland. It's been pretty interesting--one of his queries has been the issue of political or historical poetry and its place in both Poland and the U. S. His discussion has been thoughtful and relatively objective.

The consensus at Krakow had been (he's relaying information about an event that took place last month or something) that U. S. poets don't place much emphasis on the political or historical. Several people, Ed Hirsch and Tony Hoagland in particular, would like to see that change. And there were the seemingly usual paeans to seriousness of Polish poetry of the 20th century. You hear the same thing about Russian poets during the tenure of the Soviet Union.

I have a couple of thoughts about this:

1. I would like to know more about how both Polish and Russian poets deal with the politics of the Holocaust and the pogroms in their poetry--I know very little about these poets, and so am uncertain of the extent of the political issues dealt with in their poetry. It does seem to me that what most people very much admire about 20th century Russian and Polish political poetry is the response to Communism. Yet both of these societies bear a lot of blame for the persecution and murder of their fellow countrymen, Polish and Russian Jews. What I don't know is how this subject is dealt with in the course of Russian and Polish political poetry. Milosz, I'm sure, was born in the 1920s or 1930s (or maybe even earlier), so he certainly lived through some of the worst anti-Semitism in Poland--the Poles were complicit with the Nazis in the Holocaust, and Polish anti-Semitism only deepened at the conclusion of WWII--Jews returning to their homeland (Poland) were regularly murdered during the years following the war. I guess this makes me wonder how honest this political poetry can be if it only deals with the ethnic Russians and Poles' repression under Communism, which, frankly pales in comparison to the genocide they participated in just a few years earlier. I'd like to know more about Polish political poetry that deals with their country's complicity in the Holocaust.

2. And this leads me to think more about why I regularly hear from people I respect that American political poetry regularly fails, or is irrelevant, etc. When Stephen Young references successful American political poetry, he points to the literature that sprang from opposition to the Vietnam War. To me, political poetry is a lot broader than that. Young's discussion, combined with other conversations I've had about the subject, makes me wonder if 'political' is a misnomer for the genre of poetry under discussion. What people really seem to be talking about when the reference 'political' poetry is a poetry that responds to severe political repression of human rights. Which would be, more accurately, the poetry of oppression or repression, not 'political' poetry.

Politics in America itself is very complex: we are a passionate people and even political when we claim to not be political about certain subjects. Yet we're not killing each other in the streets over our political passions, and, even given the deep flaws of this Administration and their various attempts to consolidate presidential power at the expense of the other branches, we're still not living under a dictator and some politician or other branch of government other than the executive still manages to pull the Bill of Rights out of the fire.

I'm not convinced that the only poetry that can be labeled political is in response to near black-out repression. Frank O'Hara's work strikes me as deeply political--observations of the American psyche, commentary on individual American's complex or even complacent reactions to political events--think of "Ave Maria" or "Poem (Krushev is coming on the right day)". Ginsberg, too, is political in a complex way, responding to the various currents of American politics and our reactions (or lack of reaction to it). Robert Bly goes down the same paths. American political poetry is often about our friends, our own, and our country's lack of appropriate response to outrageous events--about our romance with apathy and its consequences. Thylias Moss, Mark Halliday, August Kleinzahler, Campbell McGrath (a very important political poet in the U. S.) and Anne Winters all write about the politics of capitalism, which is different from the politics of absolute dictatorial repression. Their poetry is often mocking and funny, which adds yet another dimension--while Russian and Polish political poetry is often too dour.

Frankly, I find American political poetry much more interesting than European political poetry, in part, because "political" poetry in European, Eastern Europe, and Russia has much more to do with taking a unified stance toward some obvious outrage. There's no complexity--you can't read it and say, 'maybe I don't agree with that' or you're a Nazi or fascist or dictator. Not that I would disagree morally with it. American political poetry really calls our values and attitudes on the carpet and interrogates them--it doesn't always set up rights and wrongs, good and evil. That's what makes it richer.

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