In Defense of Political Poetry: One Poet’s Journey

by Estella Lauter

In advocating for political poetry, I probably begin from a different perspective than many poets because UW Green Bay hired me in 1971 to teach a course called “Aesthetics and the Environment” in a program called “Crises in Belief and Ecology.”  Although my degree was in English, I went on to develop a program in aesthetics for majors in all the arts and became active in the field of Aesthetics, but always from the perspective of those classroom experiences. 

Many of our ideas about poetry, including the warning against political poems,  come from the discipline of Aesthetics, which developed in the late 18th Century as the arts moved out of the system of patronage, royal or not, into the hands of critics. The job of those men, along with editors, professors and other members of a new “artworld,” was to judge which discrete works of art were most valuable and to shape public taste.  In the next two hundred years, the approved forms and examples of “art” became increasingly separated from “life,” especially from politics.

In previous eras of western history, however, poetry often shaped politics as well as taste. Thus, Plato spoke against the admission of poets to the Republic because they had the dangerous capacity to move citizens’ emotions and therefore to affect their political judgment. His idea about what language could do through poetry differed substantially from the ideas we have inherited, whereby  good poems transform the poet’s perceptions  by virtue of their form and “special” use of language and serve no practical purpose. 

The history of poetry reaches back into the cradles of civilization with many purposes—lullabies, incantations to gods, aids to remembering ancestral deeds, incentives to work or fight, entertainment for kings and queens, complaints and satires—proving the ability of poetry to be and do what is needed by human individuals and societies. The ability to create art—for delight, instruction, influence, beauty, truth or any of the other reasons that have been given through time—appears to be a defining mark of human beings, who, like all other forms of life, want to survive.  Since human survival has been increasingly at risk since WWII, what better time than now to re-establish the long view that poetry has many roles to play in human civilization and some are political?

It is one thing, however, to defend political poetry as a valid literary objective and act of citizenship; it is another to write effective poems and to seek publication in a society that is deeply divided about the value and role of all the arts.  Having learned in graduate school during the 1960s that critics were unlikely poets (T.S. Eliot being the exception that proved the rule), I aspired to interpret poetry but not to write it.  As I finished my degree, having studied almost no literature by women, I became aware of several living poets who were women.  I heard readings by Marianne Moore, Gwendolyn Brooks and May Swenson (three more differently arresting poets would be hard to find),  and I participated in an “urban development” project that employed a political poet, June Jordan, to help citizens imagine how changes in building patterns might require changes in human relationships.  In 1968, I joined two other unemployed faculty wives to read and discuss the new poetry by women.  We did not see our small group as political, but it was; we were desperate for a place in the male-dominated culture of the college that employed our husbands, and the voices of women in poems helped us to decide what we would do with that desperation. 

In 1972, having followed my husband to Wisconsin, given birth and snagged my own job at UW Green Bay, I  taught a class on “women poets” with very different relationships to feminism.  By 1973, after the birth of a second child, I was writing poems about my own quest, often turning to ancient myths for insight into the changes I was experiencing along with other women.  I participated in an all-women poetry performance group, published a few poems, and became part of an ongoing poetry workshop with several accomplished (women) poets in Appleton, but the demands of a career and a family did not allow sustained  time for writing poetry.  I taught courses, published essays, but did not see where all this was leading me as a poet until I retired in 2004. By then, I had become frantic about the state of our country, and since then, I have been learning to write political poetry.  

I see politics on a continuum, with an individual’s concern for survival as a human being and for survival of “the commons” (those elements, such as clean water, that make all life possible) at one end, and at the other, the most specific partisan positions associated with particular parties and issues that have entered the public arena. The political poet takes a stand on an event or an issue that concerns others in his/her community. We need only think, however, of the poems Gwendolyn Brooks and Lucille Clifton wrote about abortion to see that virtually any personal concern can become a partisan issue.  On one level, any poem with a distinctive voice can be seen as political in that it takes a stand against cultural homogeneity. The often-maligned “confessional”  poets  of the 1950s, for example, defied both aesthetic and moral judgments by writing from personal experience.  In the process they restored a sense of community among poets and readers that had been missing from the work acclaimed by academic critics primarily for its experimental approach to language.  As a result, we regularly tell poets to “write about what you know,” and at least in the midwest, we generally prefer poetry based on experience to poetry based on ideas or language as a thing-in-itself.

Now, however, political poetry often takes a step beyond the personal in its willingness to speak or write back to those in power about what is happening outside the poet’s immediate experience. I think this step beyond the personal is timely and positive in the circumstances we face. Politicians in the last forty years have been ruthless in their use of language to gain or maintain power. While professors and editors continue to see poetic language (metaphor, metonymy, personification, etc.) as a locus of meaning rather than as an act with the power to affect people’s choices, experts  employed by political think-tanks have been coining phrases about “welfare queens,” “chimp cousins,” “death panels,” “Intelligent design” and other fabricated entities to construct an alternative reality in the media and to determine public policy.

Something is “at stake” for a community in the political poem.  Contemporary poets cannot escape the critic’s expectation that any poem will exhibit recognizable literary devices (speaker, setting, image, metaphor, story, form).  But the main point of the language in a political poem is to have an effect—to sharpen a reader’s understanding and resolve, awaken stronger feelings about the issue at stake, open up a new perspective, make the issue harder to ignore, “write back” to powerful forces, re-write the premises of power—to make a difference.  This is not as easy as it may sound.

The political poems I had written before I retired were mainly feminist in origin and usually intended for other women as an act of camaraderie or solidarity.  As I began to listen to the daily news in the new century, however, I realized that I needed to learn to speak with, for and about others outside my comfort zone.  This transformation is far from complete, but I’ll share some of the steps I have taken with the hope that others will join in the process.

At first it was a challenge for me to let an emotion into the space of the poem, because I knew it could not move others if I did not let myself show that I was moved.  Whereas the Modernist poet aspired to find an “objective correlative” to present emotion as if it were inherent in things, I needed to find ways to arouse it. This was difficult because my preferred role as a teacher and critic involved mediating the emotions of others while keeping my own in check—a  conscious choice to embody a caring (feminine?) voice in a masculine profession that required a lot of judgments.  To take a political stand is to make a judgment, but my students had taught me how often good judgments depend on circumstances. Pronouncements were neither desirable nor effective in the democratic polis I favored.  Further, the choice of subject had to be both timely and resonant if the poem was to reach beyond my inner circle of family and friends. With these ideas in mind, I experimented with various ways to frame political poems as mythic stories, dialogues, masks, characters, often using  the words of real people. 

When I wrote “All Roads Lead to Baghdad,” first published in the Peninsula Pulse (August 2006) and reprinted here, my usual difficulty in expressing emotion disappeared; my task was to find a way to contain it. Because the destruction of Baghdad in 2003 was televised for posterity as an example of  “shock and awe,” there was no problem of resonance. The event may never have the significance of 9/11 for most Americans, but it will not be possible to sweep it under the rug of amnesia.  It was a perfect subject for a stand against Imperialism, although that was not the impulse that guided my writing.  As I watched the siege on CNN, everything I had learned about Mesopotamia flashed through my mind, and I felt as if the world had been reduced to a broken attraction at a grotesque amusement park.  As I pored over maps and began to understand the scope of the damage, the poem took shape as a contrast between ancient places that gave birth to western civilization and contemporary technology with power to destroy them, between the high-sounding ideology of freedom and its terrible results on the ground.  I shared the outrage of the man on the street whose words were recorded by a journalist, and I thought they should be heard again and again. Baghdad became for me a metaphor for the will to save a civilization by destroying it, and that will, sad to say, was ours.

All Roads Lead to Baghdad

Day by day, we are moving closer to Baghdad
Day by day we are moving closer to victory.
George W. Bush, March 31, 2003

No matter which road our soldiers took to this
round city that burst its walls a thousand
years ago, they passed through Mesopotamia,
Fertile Crescent, land of milk and honey,
home of the world’s first cities, oldest
writing, the first legal codes, royal
tombs of Ur,  Hanging Gardens of Babylon,
clay tablets of first steps toward geometry.
Where the father of three faiths was told,  by you
all families of the earth will bless themselves.

Through their high-tech infra-red goggles, 
our soldiers lined up hundreds of vans,
and aimed their powerful weapons: bulls-eye,
thousands of people gone. To ease the pain,
we said that war is messy . . . stuff happens,
but the cause is freedom; no sacrifice  too great.
We will spread it everywhere, for we are
the mighty and blessed sons of Abraham.

In the inky blacks and eerie reds
of such lenses, we may remember the tale
of Arabian Nights, and see the desperate women.
What stories will satisfy this new ruler?
How many children shall they give to him
in his awful prisons, barracks and councils?
Must they wait in silence only to see
even Aladin’s magic lamp extinguished?

While our leader dances in his cowboy boots
after our own flawed election, I dream
of the man who held his brother’s severed hand
and hear once more his sorrowful cry: Is this
your liberation? your democracy, your freedom?

January 20, 2005, Published in the Peninsula Pulse, August 2005 (Second Prize in the Grutzmacher Writing Contest); reprinted in Pressing a Life Together By Hand (Finishing Line Press, 2007).

In “Gaza, January 2009,” tied for first place in the 2009 Barbara Mandigo Kelly Peace Poetry Contest of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and reprinted here, I was similarly moved, and I wanted to find a way for Israel’s supporters to see the other side, since I knew that  the Likkud government policies used to justify the attack on Gaza were not embraced by all Jews.  So in addition to using the reported words of a real doctor during the blitz, I drew on the story of Joseph and his brothers from the Hebrew Bible,  and framed both the current action and the ancient story with Li-Young Lee’s poetic essay about the power of human cells to regenerate.  Because of events such as these, life now hangs in the balance, like water at the top of a test tube. The poem is intended to convey a shred of hope.  Each of us can still choose to help our brothers avail themselves of life’s regenerative power instead of seeking endless revenge for past wrongdoing.  In this context, the conflict between Israel and Palestine is one example of a recurrent problem that now threatens world stability, but I was nonetheless relieved to find that I could read the poem without giving offense when Jews were present.

Gaza, January 2009          

In seven years, we've got a whole new body.
—Li-Young Lee, Breaking the Alabaster Jar

A European doctor on emergency duty in Gaza
says it's like being bombed in a cage,

and I think of how it must seem
to those already hospitalized
with wounds that may never heal
to hear the wham and whistle
smash and screech of missiles,
the rumble of earth giving way underneath
as they lie immobilized
waiting for medicine.
Even the body of a patient lying quietly,
incarcerated, on life support,
generates three billion cells a minute.
In seven years, he could have a whole new body,
not as it was, but brimming with life.

Where is Joseph, whose dreams saved
both Egyptians and the brothers who betrayed him?

Water brims to the top of a tube and trembles there.

Published on the web site for the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation after sharing first prize in the Barbara Mandigo Kelly  Peace Poetry Prize in 2009. 

In “Personification” (read the poem here in this issue), my most explicit political poem to date, I turned to satire in the tradition of Jonathan Swift or Mark Twain. The poem relies on irony (my kind of humor), but as the paradoxes become more serious, my judgment becomes more severe.  If there were no political consequences of the Supreme Court’s decision in “Citizens United,” it would be funny to think of so many Americans, who say they “hate” poetry and never learned what “personification” means, getting the wool pulled over their eyes by five men.  It is certainly ironic that the majority opinion, by insisting on personhood for corporations, gave the nation such a public example of bad poetry.  But the spectre of corporate (on-paper) organizations speaking as if they were individual voters, or fertilized eggs having the same rights as differentiated persons, is about as funny as Swift’s “Modest Proposal” that the babies of Ireland be eaten.  The results of the high court’s mischief with a poetic device are bad enough in themselves, but they interact disastrously with parallel initiatives such as the Voter ID laws and the personhood amendments currently under consideration by several state legislatures.

This poem is an example  of what I mean by “writing back”—revealing the gaps between the fabricated entities favored by the Court and breathing human beings.  In addition to misusing a poetic device, the Court has made a serious category mistake.  While its decision threatens democracy, the corresponding effort of religious groups to bestow personhood on fertilized eggs threatens our understanding of what it means to be human.  If the nation goes further down this road, I want it “on record” that I objected on moral and philosophical as well as poetic grounds.

The value of poetry lies in its specificity, its interaction with the real world where people feel the effects of legislative actions every day.  It may connect with history or envision the future, but it (almost) always restores the power of the individual human voice (precisely what any corporation lacks by definition, as does the fertilized egg).  If our legislators and judges do not value human beings as much as legal charters  or organisms that are visible only through imaging technology, then someone else must act on behalf of real, breathing, differentiated persons. Whether or not the ruling is eventually overturned, this is a cautionary tale to remember, and who is better equipped to tell it than poets?

Other poems have been harder to finish and publish.  In “The Return of the Marlboro Man,” a poem that reframes the “tea party” protester’s lineage, I intended the first stanza to clarify why a white male (the ads always featured a tanned white male) might be upset about his status.  I understand that it is painful to see one’s source of power disappear.  And the last stanza, where I register his surprise that he too is a vulnerable human being, has remained relatively stable through many revisions. The middle of the poem, however, where I wanted to let him speak for himself, has caused no end of trouble.  I have not been able to represent his voice without simply making him seem like a jerk, so in each revision I have cut more of his words. If my political stand is for more consideration of the effect our actions have on others,  I can’t demean the guy and still expect him or his supporters to move an inch in my direction.

Another poem is problematic because I want to say something that is very unpopular in the U.S.  I chose the living author J.K. Rowling to say it because I believe my concerns are reflected in her creation of Voldemort in the Harry Potter series.  I think that a new form of fascism (for want of a better term) could happen here, and that in fact it is already happening in some cases when the right-wing organization A.L.E.C. crafts generic laws to be enacted in state legislatures.  It has come to my attention, for example, that the new Governor of Michigan recently pushed through a law that allowed him to declare a state of financial emergency in several  cities, appoint an administrator, fire the officials, dissolve the Council and sell city property. The example I know best, however, and the one that has attracted attention overseas, is Scott Walker’s “Budget Repair Bill” in Wisconsin.

The poem took the shape of an interview with J.K. Rowling for several reasons.  A British commentary on her work confirmed my interpretation of her political views.  I had just been in England visiting a friend, and I could hear her voice in my mind. While I certainly hope that Scott Walker will turn out to be a blip on the radar screen of history, my friend and her family had actually heard about the “Wisconsin Spring,” much to their surprise, since WI does not often hit the news in Britain. Further, Rowling’s wizards show signs of becoming as permanent a feature of western literature as Tolkien’s hobbits, so she seemed to be the perfect figure to carry my concern. 

But "J.K. Rowling Comments . . ." went through countless revisions to solve one problem after another!  The editor for a political newsletter, who was not familiar with the poetic device of the mask, attributed the poem to Rowling herself.  Another thought the voice was too close to my own.  Another objected to a footnote about Voldemort.  Another said that the term fascist could not apply to politicians who say they favor small government.  Still, the poem had to be written. The political events of 2011-2012 in Wisconsin added several degrees of urgency to concerns which had been growing since the 1980s—about rising poverty, growing inequality, the role of money in politics—since it was the first time I saw middle class citizens turn against their neighbors because they received benefits that should go with every job!  I saw how a new civil war might begin.  The new revision, printed here, makes one more change at Marilyn Taylor’s suggestion. I gave the interview to J.K. Rowling’s Muse.

J.K. Rowling’s Muse Is Asked to Comment on the Wisconsin Spring

Well, it’s unnerving, isn’t it?  How our
American cousins seem to have missed
the page in history about the will to power.

It always begins, I am the only one who can
provide __X___.  Fill in the blank
with any necessary item like jobs. 

Follow Me,  so you won’t be left outside
like those othersfill in with any name.
The devil is always in those blank bits.

What he really wants, this Walker chap,
like all the old-style Fascists, is to be The One
who completely rules The Many for his own ends.

However bright the promise seems at first
it’s sure to darken. At the end of the day,
you know, the Many will not prosper.

He’s so like Voldemort, don’t you think?
Once you’ve seen the pattern for these characters,
they turn up everywhere, even in Wisconsin!

Poetry has changed many times over the centuries to respond to cultural needs, and I think our society needs poets now to speak out for real human beings. It is part of our heritage from Greek civilization, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and our own revolution to make sure that the “polis” embodies or represents the values of “the people,” not “the market” or “the One” in power.

Although I have participated in public projects involving poetry, and I am part of a group that provides a poem to begin every meeting of the Democratic Party of Door County, I admit that I have not raised the consciousness of policy-makers through poetry. I think that eventually we we can bring poetry into politics—by placing our work in more public places or by sending it directly to elected officials—either to clarify issues or to hold feet to the fire. We may also choose to re-write the ads, slogans, sound-bites and legislative or judicial sleights-of-hand that poach on our preserve of language. Whereas the executive or legislator may see only the picture a lobbyist presents, we see how policies affect real people, and to the extent we can make those effects vivid, we may, in time, make a difference.

I hope this issue of Verse Wisconsin signals the beginning of a new dialogue about political poetry, and not just in Wisconisn.  In the past century, the American academy and the artworld it produced  limited poetry’s reach by ignoring political poetry, but it is poised now to come off the shelves  as we explore what works in response to what we need as citizens in a real democracy.

It is crucial in this process to connect with other poets who see poetry as a means of action, not simply an object of contemplation. Perhaps (I hope) there are poets among us with the vision of Dante, the acerbic wit of Swift, the passion of Sappho, the precision of Li Po, the breadth and depth of Shakespeare—all of whom were profoundly critical of their societies, and all of whom possessed the ability to shape language so that the world it helped to construct was livable for the many instead of the few. If so, let’s find them and do whatever it takes to deliver their words to those in power!