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Do We Really Need More Political Poetry?

Juan Vidal has a bee in his bonnet. Over at NPR, he writes [1]:

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.

More Vidal:

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 [2] 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 [3].

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
thunderbolt/ some
big mouth
woman-hating/ super
heterosexist heterosexual
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.

12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "Do We Really Need More Political Poetry?"

#1 Comment By charles cosimano On September 12, 2014 @ 8:07 pm

There is a reason no one takes poets seriously any more.

#2 Comment By Kodiac1221 On September 13, 2014 @ 10:23 am

The ideology of protest is so inherently angry it’s almost as if they don’t understand that there is likely a christian church down the street with more answers and more change in the simple doctrine of the golden rule than any rage could create. I am glad I read that comment by Wolfe because it shows some hope, but from my experience English deptartments are full of those like Vidal.

Sometimes I wonder if the turn against traditional values is some sort of sociological narcissistic adolescence that our consumerist society has created.

#3 Comment By Ed On September 13, 2014 @ 4:29 pm

David Yezzi argued last year in the New Criterion that contemporary poetry needed more satire. The answer to calls like that is “be careful what you wish for.” It might sound now like what “we” need, but when it comes it won’t be what you want.

There was a “cart before the horse” quality to Yezzi’s call, as though writing satire would produce the certainty about values that the great satirists of history definitely possessed. Or perhaps not. Maybe writing to scourge abuses and excesses gives poets and society that surety that moved earlier writers and ages.

Then again, more certainty may make us more insufferable. Satirists have never been easy people to live with, and poets probably already think too much and too shallowly about politics for more political poetry to benefit anyone.

#4 Comment By Rich Broderick On September 13, 2014 @ 8:15 pm

It is possible — but terribly difficult — to write political poetry that is actually poetry and not polemic; that does not, in other words, display what Yeats meant when he defined rhetoric as the will trying to do the work of the imagination.

There is good poetry out there that is also political. Not much of it, and little of it originally composed in English. All that is really poetry and not like the lamentable example cited above by the author takes as its point of departure a rigorous allegiance to the laws of imagination as applied to subject matter that happens to be political in nature.

#5 Comment By philadelphialawyer On September 14, 2014 @ 6:18 pm

Why can’t there be all kinds of poetry? Does one kind crowd out or preclude another? We don’t actually “need” any poetry at all, but the more kinds that are produced, and the more of each kind, the more there is to choose from for the reader.

Tobias Wolff makes a good point. But how does his promotion of one kind of writing mean that no other kind has value?

I happen to like June Jordan’s poem.

Oh, and fetuses are not “children.” And the impulse behind making that conflation shows that the real problem here is that the “protest poets” espouse political views that you don’t like.

Why not just come out and say so? You don’t like protest poetry not because of the quality of the poetry, but because of the nature of the politics.

Kodiac 1221:

“…they don’t understand that there is likely a Christian church down the street with more answers and more change in the simple doctrine of the golden rule than any rage could create..”

Yeah, right. Seems to me those Christian churches have been around the corner for two millennia. Any “change” or “answers” that were going to come from them, one would think, would long since have come.

#6 Comment By JK Spaeth On September 14, 2014 @ 8:03 pm

That example from June Jordan is a perfect demonstration of the dense and purposefully obscurantist verse of post-modern poetry. There is no common poetic imagery between writer and reader there, and such has little value to the common person — there is nothing to connect to, emotionally, textually, or visually. Who wants more of that?!?

#7 Comment By Irenist On September 15, 2014 @ 2:11 pm


“I happen to like June Jordan’s poem.”

This is more interesting than the politics and religion in this thread. What do you like about the poem? Jordan makes some clever technical moves with enjambment, and makes some other choices I like, but overall it’s not to my taste. But that’s just me. I’d like to hear more about why this is a good poem as a poem (whatever its politics). I think I might learn something, and I’d be grateful for that.

#8 Comment By philadelphialawyer On September 15, 2014 @ 4:36 pm


I too like the enjambment. And the series of near rhymes in the second stanza (“rain/rate”, “kitchenette/habitat” etc). I also like the mix of imagery in her litany of complaints about the Abrahamic God. The tried and true stuff about the bloodthirsty hetero patriarch, but with the kitchenettes thrown in for good measure!

And, actually, I see that as a little bit of self aware, self parody too. As if to say, “Well the Christians thank God for everything good, so I might as well as blame him for everything bad, even if his connection to the bad thing at hand (ie kitchenettes) is dubious, and the degree of badness is rather slight and almost silly, and thus incongruous, when mixed in with the ‘alleyways of death’ and so forth.” Her phrase “and something called the kitchenette” seems to point in that ironical direction too.

But, most of all, I like the way the politics and the poem are melded together, are indeed inseparable, how, just as in any good poetry, the subject and the presentation become one. Her tone, to me, is especially revealing. Because, again, while on the one hand she presents the standard “I hate God” notions of the lib/rad/feminist/pro choice Left, on the other hand she uses an informal, almost chummy, set of terms to describe that God. After identifying him as “the Lord,” she goes on to call him “some wiseass got more muscle than he reasonably can control or figure out….some big mouth….kind of a guy guy…Oh! Not that guy!” As if to cut him down to size by the very words she uses to describe, much the same words as she would use for any mere mortal male being who offended her! Yeah, God is a super evil, world wrecking, blah, blah, blah, but he is also, and more tellingly, an overgrown bully loud mouth wiseass!

I guess at bottom I like the poem because, to me, she manages (with her clever use of language, her tone shifts, her self parody, etc) to pull it off. She expresses all of her anger toward the God of Abraham without losing her cool, and while remaining jaunty and slangy, and saves her most “message-y”, most serious, part for the three line ending:

My name is not Adam
My name is female
my name is freedom

That is not to say I find the poem to be anything great, just that, if this is the worst example of political poetry that could be found, I don’t think we have much to worry about.

#9 Comment By philadelphialawyer On September 15, 2014 @ 4:44 pm

Oh, and I also like, in the first stanza, the piling on of God being the this, the that, the other, etc, etc, without rhyme or even much rhythm, leading to “kind of guy guy” and then immediately rhyming that line with “he decided who could live and who would die?”

#10 Comment By jack belck On June 29, 2016 @ 8:03 pm


The smile so warm, so firm the grasp
yet eyes so cold the heart is told
the hand is but an uncoiled asp.
We know the truth without reflection:
someone is running for election.

#11 Comment By jack belck On June 29, 2016 @ 8:15 pm

Mediocrity’s Mirror

If it’s a best seller,
I must read it.
If everyone says so,
I must heed it.
If a TV tot cries,
I must feed it.
If everyone wants it
I must need it.
Am I everyone’s reflection
or facing in
the wrong direction?

#12 Comment By Oskar Frankfurt On July 9, 2016 @ 11:33 am

Yes we do need political [poetry because it expresses pinions clearly, sharply and concisely.




It isn’t the elections but a vote for life,
Just the question whether West can survive.
Too many shortsighted in voting booths,
In liberal spasms make treasonous moves
To open gates for civilization demise
And to the country existential crash,

Led by demagoguery of leftists’ talks,
Of bigotry in protection of Western world.
This elections are a straightforward choice:
Western values or strangling Sharia ropes.
History will curse betrayal of the our land,
Of female honor and of prosperous life.

I. The March to the Left

The woman defeated the aspiring man.
Dark Age engulfed the suffering land.
Payoff to protesters, leftists and thugs,
Not working, rioting, living on alms,
Led policies and financial streams.
Whites are sidelined for diversity deeds.

Order disappeared like morning fog.
Police is disarmed; Rioters rolled.
“Only black lives matter”, the slogan cried.
Cops were killed, and the leader laughed.
Terrorists thrived like in her Libyan state.
They forgot: order matters like nothing else.


Oskar Frankfurt
“The Rhapsody in White. Political Poetry”