politics in poetry

2 posts

In Our Time: The Poetry of Resistance

the tradition

In the past week, I’ve been reading a telling triptych of materials. As readers of this page know, I have Terrance Hayes’ book, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin. But I’m also slowly wending my way through Jericho Brown’s The Tradition.

To complete the trio, there’s the bad habit I have of reading front page news, where (alas!) the newspapers are addicted to tweets from He Who Must Not Be Named For Fear of Getting Cheetos Dust on the Furniture.

What a combo. And Hayes’ and Browns’ poems are better understood in this light. Or lack of light.

Consider it a variation of “through a glass darkly.” The days of being inspired to write a poem by trees or the moon are finished. For writers of color, at least, the drumbeat of degrading tweets and rally rants before ravenous crowds is enough. It’s like rich manure yielding bumper crops of literature.

I’m not sure I can call this situation a silver lining, but it makes for poetry that’s worth rereading, both for the empathy and for the talent. And I’m sure the Regrettable Muse doesn’t call only to people of color. The Accent-on-White House is inspiring a lot of political (and humanitarian and satirical and outraged) response from all quarters.

Hemingway’s first short story collection was called In Our Time, and some of the material (e.g. “Big Two-Hearted River”) was the result of his time — one of world wars created, as all wars are, by old politicians (presidents, premiers, dictators, fascists, Communists, and other stripes) for young men to die in.

As I read these poems, I can’t help but reflect on how much “our time” feeds our poetry and literature as well. Where there’s blood, there are roots that feed on it. And where there’s racism, there is soil that soaks it up and bears bitter fruit.

And so it goes, both sadly and beautifully, in our own time. One that we must not only own, but respond to and resist as writers always have—with the pen.

Poetry in an Age of Anxiety


Yesterday, while reading the Sunday New York Times, I came across this article called “America’s New ‘Anxiety’ Disorder”, which alluded to the title of W.H. Auden’s poem, “The Age of Anxiety,” in its first paragraph. Terrorism, the threat of nuclear war, the rise of authoritarian governments and nationalism–these do, indeed, make for a potent brew of angst in today’s world.

It reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s poem, “It Is Dangerous to Read Newspapers,” wherein she implies that reading and knowledge alone are enough to make one complicit. It goes like so:

It Is Dangerous to Read Newspapers – Margaret Atwood

While I was building neat
castles in the sandbox,
the hasty pits were
filling with bulldozed corpsesand as I walked to the school
washed and combed, my feet
stepping on the cracks in the cement
detonated red bombs.Now I am grownup
and literate, and I sit in my chair
as quietly as a fuse

and the jungles are flaming, the under-
brush is charged with soldiers,
the names on the difficult
maps go up in smoke.

I am the cause, I am a stockpile of chemical
toys, my body
is a deadly gadget,
I reach out in love, my hands are guns,
my good intentions are completely lethal.

Even my
passive eyes transmute
everything I look at to the pocked
black and white of a war photo,
can I stop myself

It is dangerous to read newspapers.

Each time I hit a key
on my electric typewriter,
speaking of peaceful trees

another village explodes.

Maybe there’s a bit of “it’s always me” to that poem, our inbred inclination to take on guilt. Or maybe it’s just the frustration that freezes us–the way our helplessness against the world’s ongoing narrative turns us into acquiescent bystanders who rationalize our inability to be agencies of change.
In times like this, you turn to Charles Simic, a man who knows something about war-torn states and growing up in an age of anxiety. In his childhood, anxiety meant bombs raining down on his hometown of Belgrade. It meant flight, chance, the sheer luck of survival. Because of that upbringing during WWII, the darker side of mankind would become an undertone in many of his works.


In the poem “Those Who Clean After,” for instance, one wonders if reading a poem can be as unsettling as reading any newspaper, which brings to the fore the question of whether “dangerous” is good for us or not. See what I mean here:


Those Who Clean After (for Robert Bly)-Charles Simic

Evil things are being done in our name.
Someone scrubs the blood,
As we look away,
Getting the cell ready for another day.
I can’t make out their faces,
Only bucket and mops
Being carried down stone steps
Into the dark basement.
How quietly they hose the floor,
Unfurl the musty old rags
To wipe the hooks on the ceiling.
I hear only the sounds of summer night,
The leaves worried as always
By that nameless something
Which may be lurking out there
Where we used to keep the chickens.