Juan Vidal has a bee in his bonnet. Over at NPR, he writes:
For centuries, poets were the mouthpieces railing loudly against injustice. They gave voice to the hardships and evils facing people everywhere. From Langston Hughes to Jack Kerouac and Federico García Lorca—so many—verse once served as a vehicle for expressing social and political dissent. There was fervor, there was anger. And it was embraced: See, there was a time when the poetry of the day carried with it the power of newspapers and radio programs. It was effective, even as it was overtly political. What has happened?
Vidal must be using “centuries” metaphorically.
I won’t say anything about Vidal’s several absurdities and general ignorance of literary history. There have been political poems for millennia, of course, but the sort of poems Vidal has in mind—those that rail “loudly against injustice” and serve primarily as “a vehicle for expressing social and political dissent”—are mostly a post-WWII phenomenon. But let me focus on something constructive.
At its root, poetry is the language of protest. Whether centered on love, beauty, or the ills that plague a nation, it’s all inherently political, and it all holds up as a force in any conversation. What seems like forever ago, poetry unflinchingly opposed corruption and inequality, civil and national.
That’s an odd (though sadly common) definition of politics, isn’t it? As protest or dissent. Here’s another from Tobias Wolff:
But there’s another way of thinking about politics and writing. Go to the Greek root of the word, polis, which refers to a society, in the sense of community rather than state. When writing gives a picture of the community we live in, it’s political…And the most radical political writing of all is that which makes you aware of the reality of another human being. Self-absorbed as we are, self-imprisoned even, we don’t feel that often enough. Most of the spiritualities we’ve evolved are designed to deliver us from that lockup, and art is another way out. Good stories slip past our defenses—we all want to know what happens next—and then slow time down, and compel our interest and belief in other lives than our own, so that we feel ourselves in another presence. It’s a kind of awakening, a deliverance, it cracks our shell and opens us up to the truth and singularity of others— to their very being. Writers who can make others, even our enemies, real to us have achieved a profound political end, whether or not they would call it that.
Wolff is talking about fiction, of course, but his comments apply to poetry, too. All poetry may be political, but only in the sense that it makes us aware of others suffering and delivers us (momentarily) from our self-centeredness. One could just as easily say it’s inherently religious.
I’m not a big fan of Ginsberg, but he was more than a protest poet. Other poets, however, who have shared Vidal’s narrow definition of poetry, have written some relatively hateful, self-centered work—work quite the opposite of what Wolff describes.
Take June Jordan, whom Vidal ignores, and who was one of the most political poets (using Vidal’s definition) in the last thirty years. This is from “Kissing God Goodbye,” which she wrote to protest the controversial pro-life group Operation Rescue:
You mean to tell me on the 12th day or the 13th
that the Lord
which is to say some wiseass
got more muscle than he
can control or figure out/ some
accidental hard disc
kind of a guy guy
he decided who could live and who would die?
And after he did what?
created alleyways of death
and acid rain
and infant mortality rates
and sons of gun
and something called the kitchenette
and trailer trucks to kill and carry
beautiful trees out of their natural
habitat/ Oh! Not that guy!
* * *
My name is not Adam
My name is female
my name is freedom
Whatever Operation Rescue’s tactics, is this the sort of poetry that Vidal thinks we need “now more than ever”? Rather than delivering us from self-centeredness, it feeds it. It tells us that we deserve to do what we damn well please, that our “rights” (in this case, to kill children) have been trampled.
A lot of “fervor” and “anger” here. Not so much ambiguity—one of the touchstones of art. No thanks.