I have written two overtly political poems since the chattery and charmless late 90s, when I took my first creative writing classes with some very patient instructors at the University of Pittsburgh. I mention the institutional setting because I think it’s important in determining the origin of a widely-shared aesthetic. Like most poets of my generation (I’m 34), professionals taught me how to write. I was a child of the workshop, and seven years of professional instruction during college and grad school convinced me not to wax polemical and write in line breaks at the same time. This is fine advice, and, in general, I think people should heed it. But I also think that advice of this stripe, so widely and uniformly disseminated, becomes a rule, and rules should periodically get what they deserve: graffiti mustaches, spitballs, muffled curses from the back of the class.
Or even open demonstration.
But can a poem demonstrate in a political sense? Can it link hands, sing anthems, and walk through torrents of spite? Can it sound like a thousand boot soles?
Back to those two poems. One is a dreamy, half-pretty reflection on the Bush administration, written in 2007, when almost everyone felt that he was both a silly and catastrophic man. It was ultimately more of a surreal obituary for an era than a complaint. The other is brief, hysterical chant from a chapbook I just wrote, about gas companies and the fracking they do in Pennsylvania. It may or may not be tolerable to readers. I don’t know, and I’m afraid to ask.
As any ethically responsible creative writing teacher will tell you, you put yourself at risk when you write a poem; in most cases, at least one person will let you know, implicitly or explicitly, that they don’t like the poem. This doesn’t feel good, and poets, though they don’t always admit it, prioritize feeling good more than just about anything. Because of this need, the poem should be seen as a kind of performance, and we ought to remember that performers want applause.
But performers also do something. They move through space and affect the world around them. They must acknowledge, despite the artifice of their staging, that they influence others, if only to bore, frustrate or soothe them. This is a good thing for poems and poets to keep in mind. That even when we’re making stuff up, or trying to impress, the poem might knock into something, or knock something over. Poems need readers to let them out of their cages, but they can cause some trouble once they’re free.
The famous line in this discussion is Auden’s: “poetry makes nothing happen.” I can’t deny that it’s been a profound consolation to me, allowing me to turn inward and away from disaster. But there’s no reason to think Auden’s axiom is true. At this point in American history, the most repressive (thanks to strictures of the post-911 surveillance state) we’ve seen in generations, the simple act of critique can freight its share of thunder. American writers live somewhat heavier lives than they did in the 90s (during the so-called end of history, and maybe it was for a while, at least for a lot of white people), so that even simple things have been altered, like breathing at altitude.
Today a poem can make something happen by merely affirming the ethic of privacy and autonomy that’s needed to create; it can vandalize the repressive “We” that scolds us from behind daises, podiums and fake news desks.
Not every poem becomes political under these circumstances, but every poem that confronts forces that strip us of agency (poverty, war, warrantless wiretaps, discrimination, environmental degradation, etc.) has, to some extent, strayed into the political. Still, poems can merely stray there. And if they testify about these things with rote outrage, then they are more political than poetical, and, as works of art, dead on arrival. Which is too bad, because corpses can’t protest anything.
A poem can sound like a pair of boot soles. And maybe a thousand poems can sound like a march. But boot soles, especially crowds of them, are dangerous. Besides, marching in step with others is always artistically suspicious. I value poems that feel the draw of political community even as they retreat from it, at least for as long as it takes to write — which, for better or worse, can take your whole life.
Gregory Lawless’s poems have appeared in Pleiades, The Journal, The National Poetry Review, Third Coast, Devil’s Lake, Gulf Stream, Cider Press Review, Sixth Finch, and many others. He is the author of I Thought I Was New Here (2009) and the chapbook Foreclosure (2013). Read Gregs blog at I Thought I Was New Here.