Thursday 14 April 2011

Why is political poetry so hard to write?

Poetry that addresses core political news, the stuff of broadsheet newspapers’ current affairs pages.  Cuts, cuts, cuts, the financial crisis like an earthquake with a lot of nasty aftershocks, Japan, the Arab Spring... When I was in Suffolk last month I didn’t look at the internet for several days in a row.  Early one morning I logged on at Bruisyard Hall’s vast kitchen table (only place with a good signal): the UN had declared a no-fly zone over Libya, and there was a Japanese nuclear emergency.  It felt as if I’d time-travelled forward, much more than a few days – unsettling. 

Where is the poetry that can keep up with this?  I want to persuade myself that it’s still possible.  

Peterloo Massacre, published by Richard Carlile

Shelley could write political poetry. 

I met Murder on the way -
He had a mask like Castlereagh -
Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven blood-hounds followed him:

All were fat; and well they might
Be in admirable plight,
For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed them human hearts to chew
Which from his wide cloak he drew.

Next came Fraud, and he had on,
Like Eldon, an ermined gown;
His big tears, for he wept well,
Turned to mill-stones as they fell.

And the little children, who
Round his feet played to and fro,
Thinking every tear a gem,
Had their brains knocked out by them.

Clothed with the Bible, as with light,
And the shadows of the night,
Like Sidmouth, next, Hypocrisy
On a crocodile rode by.

And many more Destructions played
In this ghastly masquerade,
All disguised, even to the eyes,
Like Bishops, lawyers, peers, or spies.

Last came Anarchy: he rode
On a white horse, splashed with blood;
He was pale even to the lips,
Like Death in the Apocalypse.

And he wore a kingly crown;
And in his grasp a sceptre shone;
On his brow this mark I saw -

With a pace stately and fast,
Over English land he passed,
Trampling to a mire of blood
The adoring multitude.

How did Shelley do it?  There’s grotesque imagery in The Mask of Anarchy, written in 1819 soon after the Peterloo Massacre.  And anger.  Both satire and mounting anger are reflected in the list-like narrative’s insistent metre and rhyme scheme.

It was easier then… to be didactic, to grandstand, to personify abstracts and use allegory, to find extreme tyranny and injustice close to home. 

It’s still possible.  NxtGen can do it.  Here’s the refrain of his rap on the NHS. 

Andrew Lansley,
greedy Andrew Lansley,
The NHS is not for sale you grey-haired manky codger!

His smart lyrics, whose rhyme and rhythm would still stand up without the backing music, exploit the bureaucratic language of privatisation:

care will be farmed out to private companies,
who will sell their service to the NHS via GPs
who will have more to do with the service purchase arrangements 
than anything to do with seeing their patients…

Rap lacks poetic inhibitions, and has the licence to tell. 

Poetry magazines have very little political poetry: is it that they don’t get sent it, or that the stuff they’re sent is bad?  What about climate change and other environmental destruction, for example: can it only be written about well, according to today’s poetry rules, by leaving it out of the poem and instead praising what we have left? 

Carol Ann Duffy (who used to be great on gender politics in The World’s Wife, knife crime in that exam board-banned poem) commissioned poems about war for The Guardian a couple of years ago.  The result was some well-constructed poems, but they didn’t lift off the page; torn between showing and telling, they couldn’t compete with the reality we keep seeing and hearing. 

Or with ex-US soldier-in-Iraq Brian Turner’s poems in his first book Here Bullet.  (I’m not suggesting that only a soldier can write war poems.  And these count as poetry-of-witness; my definition of political poetry is flexible..)  Some of them are very good.   Here is the end of ‘The Hurt Locker’:

Believe it when four men
step from a taxicab in Mosul
to shower the street in brass
and fire. Open the hurt locker
and see what there is of knives
and teeth. Open the hurt locker and learn
how rough men come hunting for souls.

The American poet Carolyn Forché does it in The Colonel, here, which begins: 

What you have heard is true. I was in his house. His wife
carried a tray of coffee and sugar. His daughter filed her
nails, his son went out for the night. There were daily
papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the cushion beside him.
The moon swung bare on its black cord over the house.
On the television was a cop show. It was in English. 

This prose poem builds up, from that calmly sinister start to something surreal and appalling.  Quoting from the middle or end could ruin the poem for anyone who hasn’t read it.  It was written in 1978 and the setting feels Latin American, like something out of Gabriel Garcia Marquez; but it could be now, Syria or Ivory Coast. 

Derek Mahon does it, in A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’, another seventies poem, the worst of times in his native Northern Ireland.  He triangulates – between the mushrooms locked in the shed; the JG Farrell novel, Troubles, that’s a starting point for the poem; and the politics, implied throughout until that one startling line at the end of the second passage below: 

The rest, dim in a twilight of crumbling
Utensils and broken flower-pots, groaning
For their deliverance, have been so long
Expectant that there is left only the posture.

They are begging us, you see, in their wordless way,
To do something, to speak on their behalf
Or at least not to close the door again.
Lost people of Treblinka and Pompeii!

That last line is the 54th (of 60); by then, the poem has earned it. 

When a political poem works as well as those last two, it seems to get around, onto school syllabuses and into people’s poem repositories.  And the NHS rap has been viewed over 300,000 times on YouTube. There is surely stuff being written in other parts of the world, whether Burma or Bahrain, Congo or China, that few of us can access.

When I want a fix of really great political poetry I tend to go to those Eastern Europeans who wrote it in the Iron Curtain years of the 20th century: Herbert, Miłosz, Szymborska, Holub, etc.  Some of them were experts on writing about things by leaving them out.  There’s an excellent anthology edited by Daniel Weissbort called The Poetry of Survival: Post-war Poets of Central and Eastern Europe.  And there are so many other great poets who did it in the 20th century: Akhmatova, Celan, Darwish…  (World class English language writers don’t come to mind so immediately in this context: Yeats, Auden…?)  There’s Carolyn Forché’s anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness. 

Maybe Brecht, who also belongs on the list, sums up what they had in common:

In the dark times, will there
also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing.
About the dark times.

But what happens when Brecht’s put against TS Eliot’s ‘raid on the inarticulate’?  Today's world of politics is all too articulate. Political discourse is often dreadful: mean, evasive and dishonest, from the Commons speech (satirised in Carol Ann Duffy’s  ‘Weasel Words’) to the Today Programme.  Political news is everywhere, fluent, vivid, exciting, appalling, updated by the minute, illustrated by the best pictures.  

How can poetry make all this new, when it’s new anyway?  When we get angry about politics, don’t we mostly get angry in prose, in words that are all too sayable?  And getting angry isn’t the way to access the place where poetry comes from.  Maybe that place has changed, from Shelley’s day.  In the western world, anyway.

The poetry rules and customs have certainly changed, to a point where rapper NxtGen can do things that the poetry establishment can’t. 

Any ideas on who's currently setting the world alight with political poems would be very welcome. 


  1. Your mention of climate change made me think of this poem by Jane Hirshfield:

    Global Warming

    When his ship first came to Australia,
    Cook wrote, the natives
    continued fishing, without looking up.
    Unable, it seems, to fear what was too large to be

    This is from Neil Astley's Bloodaxe collection of eco poems 'Earth Shattering', which contains some interesting and important poems such as Matthew Sweeney's 'Zero Hour', Kathleen Jamie's 'Frogs' and Wislawa Szymborska's 'In praise of feeling bad about yourself'. (Though it does have a rather lurid cover, a still from the Hollywood eco-catastrophe film 'The Day after Tomorrow'.)

    Another good collection with an environmental theme is 'Wild Reckoning', edited by John Burnside and Maurice Riordan.

    Hirshfield's point probably applies to much political poetry, in term of the difficulty of comprehending and approaching the sheer daunting scale of the problem without being obvious and journalistic. Or retorting to heart-in-the-right-place angry rants (like Pinter?)

    Stephen Elves

  2. Stephen - I agree about 'Earth Shattering'. You've just sent me back to those 4 poems. I hadn't really focussed on the Hirschfield poem before, which is very apt in this context.

    I also glanced at Astley's intro and this para struck me as interesting, in a book published only 4 years ago:

    "There are.. numerous contemporary poets addressing the environmental crisis with perception and passion, but most are American. The fact that poets in this country know so little about American ecopoetry must have robbed them of inspiring role models. This has also helped to foster the widely held view that ecopoetry is almost by definition political, and therefore propagandist."

    I haven't come across 'Wild Reckoning', thanks for that recommendation.

    As for Pinter: yes, a cautionary tale of how not to write political poetry! Yet some people in the world of arts generally, if not of poetry, seem to take it seriously.

  3. Hi Fiona

    I like this blog. It's an ongoing question, isn't it, the political in poetry.

    Like Jane Hirshfield, Chase Twichell is a Buddhist, and if we are including environmental politics, a huge and important subject, then her 'City Animals' in Astley's 'Being Human' is a strong one. Yes 'Wild Reckoning' is a good book. There's also an anthology of eco-poetry recently come out, 'Soul of the Earth', from Awen and edited by Jay Ramsay and Kevan Manwaring (I have contributed to this myself). It seems to me there's quite a lot of good political poetry coming out at the moment - 'Being Human' includes quite a number.

    Best wishes

  4. Thanks Roselle, especially for the Awen anthology recommendation - will look that out.

  5. I found this blogpost when I Googled "political poetry," which I do from time to time to see what might have appeared on the web. Everything you talk about here is of the greatest interest to me.

    There is, I think, a great deal of politically conscious or politically explicit poetry in the world, both currently and in the past. I like the examples you give here -- Shelley, NxtGen, Turner, Forche, Mahon, Brecht. There are many others who come to mind.

    Two of the poets whose work has been most important to me -- their poetry as such, and specifically for its political content -- are Thomas McGrath and Sharon Doubiago. (The Thomas McGrath I'm talking about here is the American poet, author of the book-length poem Letter to an Imaginary Friend, rather than the Scottish playwright and poet Tom McGrath.) Other English-language poets who some to mind, in this respect, include Muriel Rukeyser, Carl Sandburg (his earlier work especially), Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Olga Cabral, Joy Harjo, Don Gordon, Bert Meyers, Naomi Replansky, William Witherup, Barbara Jane Reyes, Martin Espada, Hugh MacDiarmid, Margaret Atwood, Adrian Mitchell, John Agard... well, the list could be a long one, if I thought about it for a few minutes.

    A good recent anthology of politically conscious poetry is Seeds of Fire: Contemporary Poetry from the Other USA edited by Jon Andersen, published in 2008 by Smokestack Books out of Middlebrough.

    Regarding poetry magazines, I'm more familiar with the landscape here in the U.S. than in Britain. Many poetry magazines here tend to avoid poetry with explicitly political content, because they know it could endanger their sources of funding (whether from government sources, or private "non-profit" foundations). And the Creative Writing programs in university English departments tend to discourage the writing of poetry with explicit political content, for any number of ideological reasons, or just because such poetry tends to have a harder time getting published (more or less a self-fulfilling prophecy).

    Three magazines in the U.S. that I particularly like are Pemmican (formerly a print annual, now online only), Blue Collar Review (a print quarterly), and Main Street Rag (a print quarterly). Pemmican and Blue Collar Review specifically seek out poetry with clear political content. Main Street Rag tends to publish a broader range of work, though they're certainly not averse to politically conscious writing.

    Several years back an essay/commentary piece I wrote on Political Poetry was published online in Pemmican, here, if you care to take a look.

    I enjoyed reading your blogpost here. I'll come back and read more.

  6. Thank you Lyle - it’s great to have a US perspective. I don’t know some of the poets you list, or the anthology; but that’s OK as I live in London, which has a library devoted to 20th and 21st century poetry in English. (The ones I’ve read don’t all fall within my deliberately narrow definition, for this blog post, of poetry that addresses core political news - but of course they qualify in the wider sense.)

    Interesting that there also seems to be a tendency to avoid political poetry in the US.

    I’ll be checking out your blogs too.