Saturday, February 9, 2008

political poetry

One thing I note in many poetics discussions regarding political poetry is that the idea of what might be political about a poem rarely gets examined in more detail. Instead the argument is more likely to take the form of ought to be political/ought not to be political. Given that so many poems are already political, to say that they shouldn’t be is perhaps a little irrelevant, since political poems are unlikely to go away just because some people would prefer that they not get written. But what kinds of political poems are there, and in what ways are they political?

I’m hardly any kind of pure taxonomist, since I think Derrida is right that the infinite divisability of the trait means that categories inevitably collapse if we believe in them too firmly. But relative categories can still be very helpful.

I’m still building my own casual list of types of poems that might be said to be political, so if you have any others to suggest, please do. And of course I understand that many poems mix these categories or fit uneasily between them.


The call to action/exhortation poem:
Including both protest and pro-war poems, this poem demands that something be done now, or is written to support an action in the world that is occurring simultaneously.

The investigative poem:
This poem explores a particular social or historical situation or crisis, attempting to bring to light untold stories, or new perspectives, or even “the truth.” I’m borrowing the term “investigative” from Ed Sanders, especially with reference to the way Kristin Prevallet has written about it.

The poem of ideology:
This poem looks not so much at particular situations as it does attempt to expose or explore the ideologies dominating a society or some portion of it. Another version of this poem insists on the importance of its own ideology.

The visionary poetics poem:
This poem, in re-imagining spiritual transformations or the future, probably also inevitably involves a re-imagining of the social.

The politics of form poem:
This poem is likely to critique, or offer itself as a counter-example to, the currently dominant aesthetics of literary creation or normative reading practices. Similar to the poem of ideology but different because it explores and critiques the ideology and powers-that-be of its own field.

The “personal is political” poem: This poem explores intimate personal relationships with an eye to the ideologies that construct those relationships. Not for instance a poem generally critiquing the institution of marriage, but one detailing a particular marriage and the ideological investments and struggles revealed between persons in that marriage. Is Adrienne Rich the originator of the phrase “the personal is political”?


Back when I was in graduate school, it was common to say that “all poems are ideological” and that therefore all poems have political implications by definition. I still think that’s true: there’s no way to express no ideology in a poem. So one could add the category “poems that wish not to be political but inevitably are.” Still, to frame things in that way makes the category “political” so large as to be practically meaningless, so for now at least I’m going to restrict these classifications to poems that seem consciously to be invested in political, social, and ideological issues.

And finally, looking at the list above, I can imagine people saying that poems of this or that classification are not really political, or not political enough, or too explicitly political. I can imagine someone saying that right now we have too many of these and not enough of those. But those concerns would involve playing politics more specifically than this casual taxonomy can say anything about.


Ryan W. said...

"Still, to frame things in that way makes the category 'political' so large as to be practically meaningless..."

For me, the category "political" is practically meaningless, so much so that I can't find any interest in trying to rescue it from that meaninglessness. In fact, I would say it's best to hurry up and let it be meaningless. As you suggest, nothing is actually articulated when we say that a poem is political. I think it's useful to point that out, as you have done with this post. Then at least, any impulse to say that a poem is "political" can be replaced by an impulse to say what one actually might have in mind when one says such a thing, hopefully without even using the word "political." What one actually has in mind would depend on the particular case.

Ian Keenan said...

This is very concise but hitting most of the relevant points well. I think the other inevitable but arduous task is to analyze case by case, as you do with Sanders, the effective use of techniques in the past of both political and non-political poems. I think that worthwhile examples (at the low end of the scale) or masterpieces (at the high end) have been written in all of those categories of political poems.

I have come to agree that all poetry is ideological, but for some the latency of the ideological underpinnings enables certain freedom to spontaneously create possibilities, as in say Rimbaud, Beckett, Creeley, or Eigner. Creeley stated a belief that his poetry was affected by politics as little as possible. This freedom would seem to include the prerogative not to fixate on the ideology of one’s poems or to address it or talk back to it in the poem.

Sandra Simonds said...

interesting post.


Maxine said...

You are so right. I wish there was more of this kind of discussion here on the poetry scene in Australia. Great post!

Unknown said...

I have a (liberal-leaning) political poetry blog ( and would be interested in all of your viewpoints on my work. Please check it out, and leave a comment to let me know what you think.

XXX said...


I've just put up a blog about the political in poetry; I'm having my first poetry chapbook published, but I have an interest in it also from an academic standpoint. I have some articles and sample work on it if anyone is interested in engaging with it;

I'd be interested to hear any views on the need to develop the political and critical moment in poetry in light of the monumental shifts in culture and communication over the last 30 years. Too few people are addressing themselves to this problem.