I just spent a very nice lunch hour at the Center for American Progress listening to “political poets” read and discuss their work. As the promo for the event read,
Percy Shelley said that poetry, also known as critical reflections upon popular culture, was a touchstone and an influencing agent for understanding and advocating for current issues. E. Ethelbert Miller, David Gewanter, and Naomi Ayala have each written poems in this spirit. It is a gender- and culturally diverse voice that will sound out to the audience messages of progressive change at the level both of policy but more importantly of worldview.
The Progressive Poetry event certainly fills the bill for CAP’s own progressive left agenda. The featured poets, E. Ethelbert Miller, David Gewanter, and Naomi Ayala, see themselves as writing political poetry. But the question that always comes up in these settings is whether poetry should be political. The truth is that much poetry that sets out to be political is truly god awful. But I think this is a function of bad writing, not of the intent to write politically. Every poem advocates something, even if it is the need to stop and ponder. Maxine Kumin’s poetry advocates reflection, and does it very well. Naomi’s poetry today advocated reflecting on the downside of gentrification. But neither Kumin’s nor Ayala’s poetry is polemical.
The problem isn’t political poetry; it’s polemical poetry that tries artlessly to get the listener to change. Good poems do something else.
Some of my favorite poetry is political, like Adrienne Rich’s poem “North American Time.” Do read it and notice something. If what she is saying there is right, then all poetry stands for — or fails to stand for — something. We are all responsible for our words and what they do, no matter whether they are “political” or not.