VerseDay: The imperative of political poetry
I’m not a political poet. Not for the most part, anyway. I certainly never wanted to be one, and I had been writing for a number of years before this finally happened:
I don’t want to say too much for fear of being misconstrued
for fear of being understood all too clearly
so here’s your warning â€“
flowers sometimes bloom quite literally,
unfurling in the dewfall to kiss
mother sky good morrow.
And sometimes wolves change their sheep
clothes for pinstripes.
these truths we hold to be self-evident
fade to black,
seven ancient words
lost in the splash and white noise â€“
bites, topspin, code.
Make no mistake:
style has triumphed over substance;
our shamans hire out as consultants;
God is coming to pay-per-view;
and a thousand points of light
are less than nothing
in a million miles of darkness.
Surely some gentle beast,
its hour come round at last,
casts its drowsy eyes
across the land.
Surely it wonders â€“
what is this terrible myth
My Word has become?
Certainly political verse has a long and noble tradition, and some of my own heroes were pretty darned political in both their writing and their professional lives. This poem makes direct reference to William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” and Yeats’ earlier writing provided the mythic foundations for the Irish rebellion against England. Later on he became a legislator, even. Eliot’s writing had its socio-political tones, and if I track back through the parts of the canon I always liked the most I come across people like Arnold, Byron – even the Metaphysicians and cavalier poets who sashayed off to a righteous ass-whipping at the hands of Cromwell’s Roundheads.
TELL me not (Sweet) I am unkinde,
That from the Nunnerie
Of thy chaste breast, and quiet minde,
To Warre and Armes I flie.
True; a new Mistresse now I chase,
The first Foe in the Field;
And with a stronger Faith imbrace
A Sword, a Horse, a Shield.
Yet this Inconstancy is such,
As you too shall adore;
I could not love thee (Deare) so much,
Lov’d I not Honour more.
Still, I felt no call to political commentary. But over time I think it became more and more inevitable. I wanted, perhaps, to be left alone to write about love and loss and spirituality and a variety of more apocalyptic themes, but the political world wouldn’t leave me alone. Maybe this is how it was for my heroes. Maybe Yeats never wanted to write about politics – certainly “Easter 1916” isn’t something he’d have ever hoped for.
We live in a period where it’s almost impossible to write without at least political implication. Sure, most of life is political in some respects, but is it possible for the writer with a soul to keep down the foul, necessary beast that is the public expression of outrage?
Maybe. Maybe it’s just me. But I’ll leave you with a taste of the sort of thing that keeps insisting on being written.
Our legions are marching on the
City of Rain, our bleeding
bare feet, bone against concrete,
tearing ruts in the Kingâ€™s highway.
We remember the lash and the
hole. We remember Babylon
Ballroom, silver trays of cheese and
meats and candy-twist liqueur, the
splay of light tinkling
hunched over our books and
tearing at stale bread, we
recite the lessons we
will teach you soon:
there is no difference between
palace and prison,
champagne and hemlock,
chandelier and gallows.
When gunfire rips at the hinges of dawn,
we will decorate lampposts with your
heads and feed your tongues to corbies.
When pyres of burnished mahogany
roil the skies of Hell,
we will kill you last,
saving you and savoring as you
boil in the dying screams of your
Pinned to the wall like butterflies,
you will hang in the grand gallery
twitching for centuries among the
handbills of kleptocracy:
your economies of fraud,
grifters in the boardroom, jowls
dripping with grease,
your genocides of neglect,
sucking the bones of your
feasting tables clean
while abandoned children and stray dogs
fight for scraps
in your alleys
in your roach-ripe tenements
in fields scalding with immigrant despair
in the flesh-caked machines of your factories
in your third worlds
on your oil-soaked beaches
in extinctions that once were forests
aflame with birdsong
in the shadow of church bells
tolling beneath your mansions.
This Do in the Name of Commerce,
we are your shareholders now, flooding down the
Valley of Chrome, like
rose petals and ticker tape and gun oil.
I hope you’ll share some of your thoughts and favorite political poems with us.