Shane Neilson is poetry
editor at the Danforth
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Political poetry is a subject
of great interest to me. Since I came of an age able to digest
political thought, moral feeling, and satire, I've found the martial
rhythms and gruesome images of political poetry irresistible.
This not a solely aesthetic predilection; ever since I was energized
on reading my first political poem, I became aware of the singular
characteristic of the genre: its power. As I read that poem, I
felt in me a stirred sense of horror or indignation, a circumstance
entirely intended by the poet. So inspired, I sat down to write
my first political poem (which was insufferably bad, titled "Bad
Serbs".) Like our countrymen, I slowly improved with practice.
Erotic poetry may inflame the
loins, but that's it- the end result is copulation. A nature lyric
cannot save rain forests or enforce conservation. Confessional
poetry is cathartic for the writer, and sometimes exhilarating
for the reader, but the insights conveyed are usually idiosyncratic
and are almost always more indulgent than constructive. In modern
poetry, then, the arena for change is solely a political one,
and the ultimate mode of political poetry is war poetry. Few things
compete with war as a harbinger of change.
Balancing this special ability
is the tendency amongst the literary establishment to consider
political poetry as inferior to more covert poetry devoted to
higher sentiments- chiefly, nature, love, and death off the battlefield.
Political poetry suffers critically because it tends to be fashioned
for a material purpose, as opposed to an abstract one. By its
nature, a "political" poem is overt. If one concedes
that, to some extent at least, political machinations direct the
poet's choice of subject, tone, and word usage, then the "political"
poem is an order higher than the baseline affiliations of the
general poem. Overtness is not necessarily a handicap; obfuscation
is not in itself a good strategy, and directness has the already
stated benefit of more completely mobilizing the reader's attentions
and emotions. Yet a strength can also be a weakness, and so it
is that mediocre or outright lousy verse practitioners are the
poets attracted to one-note anthems featuring morally uncomplicated
stanzas. Such poets utilize argumentative poetics (it goes without
saying- no poem should argue. Instead, a poem should persuade.)
mobilized for the destruction of X, the repeal of Y, the downfall
of Z. By arguing so simplistically, the lesser political poets
are oblivious to their audience, which does not need convincing.
All know that death, pestilence, and evil are all undesirable.
Odious poets, like politicians
who enjoy power for its own sake, are the ones most susceptible
to the power of their verse office. Because political poems effect
by force of affect, poor politicos rush into production vapid
solemnities decrying the headline of the day. Bad poets are legion
in any age, but this is doubly true of the political cohort. Good
political poets get tarred by association.
Exemplars of political poetry
diverge from their less talented fellows not in intensity of feeling,
for I suspect both camps, being poets, feel just as acutely. No,
the bifurcation occurs when comparing the relative degrees of
moral sophistication and the amount of obliquity involved in the
poet's analysis. Instead of relaying that X, Y, and Z are mere
monstrosities, the good political poet takes a roundabout route
towards the overt truths of the Holocaust, for example. In the
process, he develops a poetic surreality capable of introducing
businesslike horror. Absurdity allows a better look at the totality
of horror because of the seeming impossibility of the historical
acts themselves; isn't torture absurd to the common sensibility?
Isn't mass extermination?
In forcing the reader to take
a deep contemplative breath, to encourage him to make leaps in
lexical logic and deductions in grotesque metaphor, the immensity
of barbarity is revealed, as if the poet is saying: yes, dear
reader, we did indeed do that to one another. You had to think
about it for a moment, didn't you?
As co-poetry editor of the Danforth
Review, I sift through about a hundred submissions every four
months. A third of these could be considered political poems.
An informal survey of other poetry editors showed a similar experience
to my own. In the months after 9/11, this ratio was predictably
weighted much in favor of the political spectrum. Yet in my few
years as editor, I have never published a political poem despite
the fact that a good proportion of the submissions possess political
The usual mistake is -alas- grammatical
error. Half fail for this reason, and they are the blessedly bad
poets whom are easy for an editor to recognize and reject. The
remainder display a reasonable appreciation of the language in
their poems but unfortunately give the game away when they substitute
profundity with forceful judgment. Their poems bully the mind,
offering the reader no alternative but assent. All agree that
bad things are, by definition, bad things. But this is the extent
of the moral inquiry- a mere declaration. Better political poets
ask questions in their poems, and though they do not arrive at
answers, they create a dimension of evil as absurd as it is abhorrent.
The 9/11 poems I received are
a good example. Each expressed socially sanctioned outrage. A
few adopted anecdotal stances, detailing where the poet was when
the jets hit. Other poets presumed the experience of the trapped
passengers on the commandeered planes. Yet not one reflected a
subversive attitude, an inappropriate sentiment. There was no
absurdity or liveliness to the general evil, only the cinematic
equivalent of black-hat terrorists driving planes into buildings
-- cue cackle -- and white-hat firemen and policemen responding
heroically to the challenge.
The absurd is an artistic method
that has been around for a long time. At a fundamental level the
technique's engine is humor. Absurdity requires an imagination
with the capacity not only to rue our folly, but also to chortle
at it. Synonymous with the word "absurd" in this context
is "whimsy", and all political poets of stature are
able to laugh in verse at how terrible human beings are to one
another. The seeming inappropriateness of this gesture heightens
the moral stakes- how can the poet laugh at such inhumanity? The
answer: by writing a great poem at odds with itself, one that
rues its laughter. Preservation of humor in the face of awfulness
proves the poet human, proves him ultra-human. A close inspection
of that laughter reveals that it is the perfect embodiment of
regret and bitterness, but also of terrible acknowledgement. The
poet is laughing at what we have lost.
As a regular reader of unsolicited
poetry, I have awaited poems about the Middle East featuring Palestinian
ice cream bombs and Israeli tanks made out of chocolate; of 9/11
poems featuring a Godzilla-sized Osama Bin Laden clutching George
Bush, who entreats: "Don't eat me, I'll give you cirrhosis!"
I expect playful silliness as well as comic seriousness, poems
in which Rwandan Tutsis mass-install machetes porcupine-style
on a Volkswagen Beetles and christen the cars "Hutumobiles."
I yearn for the tragically humorous, the sad-funny poems that
are the highest form of political poetry.
Heaney, Neruda, Milosz, and Ahkmatova
are a few immediate examples beyond the genius of Paul Celan,
but some respectable entries have been penned by our countrymen.
No poem in our history has achieved
the popularity in its day or the enduring legacy of Col. John
McCrae's "In Flanders' Fields", originally published
in the December 8th, 1915 issue of Punch. Generations of Canadian
schoolchildren thereafter have been forced to learn the poem by
rote, and though "In Flanders' Fields" edges toward
treacle as it nears conclusion, the first two verses typify the
two-mindedness of good political poetry:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amongst the guns below.
Understated in its rhymes, austere
in its images, the poem presents grief made natural by making
the poppy a bloody metaphor in the first verse. Notice the placid
pace of the stanza despite the fact that a war's going on, "Scarce
heard amongst the guns below." Poppies blow sedately and
such, although McCrae manages to sneak in a sly criticism of war:
his choice of bird is the lark, an avian misfit, the bird of all
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders Fields.
Quite unexpectedly, the second
verse shifts the poem's tone and pins the poppy to the breast
of its "Dead." McCrae uses dead soldiers as the poem's
narrators, thereby injecting an elementary grotesquerie into his
poetic. McCrae juxtaposes a natural scene of poppies and larks
with talking zombies. He and fellow Canadian poets of the period
had yet to choose humor over earnestness -if only McCrae could
have presciently appreciated the side-splitting joke of the wounded
men he treated, some with sides split, some split at the middles,
some sidelong hoping to return home- but the contemporary reader
can forgive McCrae his shortcomings, shared even by Wilfred Owen,
the greatest poet of World War One. McCrae's poem became famous
not because it trumpeted valor and self-sacrifice in name of country
(although it did do that), but instead because the stuff of war
subversively leaked into the poem. McCrae had a zombie beat the
drum of nationalism, attempting to swell the rosters with enlisted
men- and that's a healthy measure of moral sophistication.
"In Flanders Fields"
can be thought of as the nascency of Canadian political poetry,
and subsequent poets have built upon this beginning, just as subsequent
soldiers followed their fallen comrades in order to establish
the reputation of Canadian regiments. First World War casualties
had a voice largely articulated by McCrae. Later generations of
Canadian poets made these voices more animate. Canada can attest
to many bunglers in the early stages, but soon we came to know
our way around a political poem. The best example of an Atlantic
Canadian's proficiency is found in Alden Nowlan's "Ypres
1915", a tender and astonished poem full of wonder and innocence;
a more elegiac example is supplied by A.M. Klein in "Meditation
Upon Survival" Irving Layton was a rascally political poet,
agitating, and at his irritant best in "A Tall Man Executes
a Jig"; even the unlikely Al Purdy wrote the excellent "Dead
March for Sergeant MacLeod."
On November Eleventh, Remembrance
Day, Canadians will stand on parade ground squares and commemorate
cenotaphs bearing the names of dead men and women. We will listen
to the drumbeats and watch the presentations of wreaths by geriatric
soldiers whose ranks gradually succumb to the toll of time. In
this way and in others we will be reminded of the feebleness of
freedom. A solemn voice will recite McCrae's poem into a microphone,
and the ceremony will be done, and we will all go home- though,
for the poets and for the soldiers, the work will never finish.