Review Essay

Political Poetry

by Estella Lauter

These two books offer very different approaches to the new (or revived) genre of political poetry. The first contains seven poems and an essay on one extended event—namely the demonstrations in winter 2011 that led to the petition to recall WI Gov. Scott Walker in 2012. The second contains three long chapbooks (34, 39 and 40 pages apiece) on the general malaise of the U.S. under the leadership of George W. Bush, with some forays into the world of nature (the second chapbook is titled “Into the Wild”) and into the author’s life. The first uses an essay to explain the political and physical circumstances of the poems. The second alludes to places (Guantanamo Bay, Katrina) and events (the Mission Accomplished stunt Bush pulled after the fall of Baghdad) but mainly creates hypothetical situations drawn from mythology (Christian, Greek, etc.) to assess the character and motivations of those in power. The first puts the author in the midst of the events (at a rally, on a bus going to a rally, etc.). The second places the author outside the action (“I sit alone thinking back . . .” p. 78). The first draws on the world of nature for metaphors to express both the injury to Wisconsin and America in the 2010 election (a scorpion’s sting) and the hope of spring (“Wanton and wind springtime, rise also/in us”). The second presents animals, sometimes including human beings, primarily as predators and prey. 

The most significant difference, however, lies in the point of view of the authors. Smith makes a case in his essay against Walker’s policies and judges his behavior as a childish response to the “socially mature values championed by pioneering Wisconsinites,” but his perspective is hopeful that the protests in 2011 will reawaken the Progressive tradition.  Portolano speaks from the mythic perspective of gods and heroes with Jesus as the ultimate model, next to which not only Bush but most other people are inadequate.  The root of the problem with human beings, he finds, lies in our reactions to fear, which are either to bully others or to follow the herd.  Since the author remembers a different America, it must be possible to do better, but the overall view of the book is tragic. Judgment is a difficult stance for poets in a democratic society, so it is important for us as readers to know what stake each man had in each situation. Smith was a participant-observer in the protests. Portolano was one of the many men who were not allowed to go home after his tour of duty ended, and he experienced an attack that killed his team and left him with a debilitating wound (62-63).  No wonder he is angry and finds solace only in his immediate family or occasionally in nature.

It is becoming possible to identify some typical kinds of poems within the new or revived political genre, and several  occur in Smith’s small book.  One is a relatively straightforward poem that identifies an event or a moment in time when a change for the worse occurred that necessitates recognition or action from the poet and the reader.  In “Passing of November, 2010” Smith presents the November 2010 election as an example of America stinging itself like a scorpion (although without  the context of Smith’s essay, a reader might not see either the election or the reason it stung). Another is a poem addressed to the perpetrator(s) of the act that concerns the poet. “Real Middle Class” addresses Governor Walker, taking issue with a public statement he made about the protesters that conflicted with Smith’s experience of them. In a variation of this sub-genre, Smith also addresses the students among the protesters who gave the grey-haired participants hope. A third kind of poem uses a metaphor or narrative drawn from nature (or any well-known reference point) to measure the significance of the political event or issue; “Mile-Wide Tornado” illustrates this category.

Portolano relies mainly on the third kind of poem, framing and re-framing the Bush II presidency in the contexts of the Dark Ages, the story of Moses and the burning bush, the blindness of the Cyclops, the loss of Paradise, Machiavelli’s advice to the Prince, the Crusades, a soldier’s response to being left at the River Styx, the Fall of the Empire, the Tower of Babel, the Gates of Hell, and finally the wish of President John Adams that “none but honest and wise men ever rule under [the White House] roof." By every measure the poet can conjure, this was a Baaad Leader, and the reader’s task is to become conscious of  all the varieties of evil that such men exhibit and sponsor in others.   
These books, along with the Verse Wisconsin Main Street poems about the 2011 protests and  several books written in resonse to the Iraq War, are helpful contributions to what may be a long process of shaping political poetry for our time.  I would wish for Smith’s book to be expanded so that the poems themselves do the work of the essay (because I think that poems have greater power to move an audience), and for Portolano’s to be re-edited (for the usual technical things but also for breathing room and emphasis) to guide the reader through the experience of evaluating a leader in mythic terms.

Estella Lauter is Professor Emerita at UW-Oshkosh and lives in the Door Peninsula. Her first chapbook, Pressing a Life Together By Hand (2007), appeared in the New Women’s Voices series from Finishing Line Press, and was nominated for two Pushcart prizes. The Essential Rudder: North Channel Poems was released by FLP in 2008. Her poem "Gaza, January 2009" tied for first prize in the 2009 Barbara Mandigo Kelly Peace Poetry Contest; it appears on