Political Poetry

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.

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.

1 comment

  1. Hi. Thanks for introducing me to Adrienne Rich’s poem, “North American Time.” I have read some of her poetry but not that one.

    I like your points about political poetry. I was wondering if you could comment on mine?



Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: