Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Word for Word #15 and the question of “political” poetry

(Photo: Tom Hibbard at Woodland Pattern Book Center in Milwaukee)

Word for Word #15 is now online, with its four sections defined as poetry, visual poetry, “political” poetry (quotation marks from the issue), and essays and notes. Jonathan Minton has been edited Word for Word for awhile now, and each issue is always fun and insightful, combining a wide range of experimental and underground writers.

Several of my poems can be found in the “political” poetry section edited by Tom Hibbard, a section which also features work by some of my favorite poets, like Buck Downs and Michael Baskinsi. I’m not sure how many people in the world of poetry know Tom. I’ve been reading and learning from his poems for more than a decade. My favorite book of Tom’s is The Songs of Divine Love, a limited, perhaps now impossible to find (and probably never very possible) edition of poems of clipped lines and fascinating reflections and images, a combination of stark understatement, political commentary, and philosophical grandeur. The Songs of Divine Love had a powerful effect on me when I first read it in the 1990s and was a central influence on my own collection Belief Is Impossible, a manuscript that has never been published as a book while almost all the poems in it have appeared in some magazine or other.

Here’s the first poem in Tom’s The Songs of Divine Love:


On top a hill is someone’s house.
Trees brush the hot grass of a battlefield.
Your word destroys the walls of the monarchs.
To deliver up refers to publicly giving
False evidence against what is worthwhile.
No one’s arms hold the dead body.
The sky is a picturesque, powdery blue.

Tom is one of those writers whose work reminds me that the higher profile echelons of the world of poetry are by no means necessarily the place where the best poems are coming from. Poetry is never restricted to the context of poets who are most broadly known as poets.

Tom has written reviews of my work in the past, like his review of my book Haze in the online journal Jacket. While he and I have slightly different takes on what we’re looking for out of books of contemporary literature, his ideas are always thought-provoking. My many interactions with him regarding poetry have been worthwhile and intriguing, although he and I have never met in person.

I hope you’ll take a look at Tom's brief introductory discussion of the concept of political poetry. I’m not sure I agree with Tom’s way of defining the political poem as “uncovering the real problems of real people.” I remain uncomfortable with the simultaneous flexibility and inflexibility of the term “real” when applied to people and problems—flexible because of the way it includes everyone (we’re all real) and inflexible because of the implication of excluding them (why say “real person” except to distinguish it from just plain “person,” so that there’s an opposite “unreal person,” and who exactly would that be? Wealthy anti-health care reform Republicans? Aren’t such people all too real?). Still, “uncovering the problems of people” seems one way of talking about what it means to write a political poem.

I once wrote a taxonomy describing various kinds of political poems, and I see Tom’s ideas as operating within a range of poems that can be said to be political in some of their elements. The poems gathered as “political” in Word for Word #15 are quite a surprising group and overall offer a good challenge to the idea that the political in poetry can ever be defined as existing only within a narrow range of practices.

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