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In defence of political poetry.

TORONTO -- The relationship between poetry and politics is a vexed one in western culture, and discussion of the two usually centres on whether or not politics is a "suitable" subject for poetic treatment. Poems with explicitly political content are often criticized as "rhetorical," and the writer accused of replacing proper poetic concerns with inappropriate worldly ones. In this view, poetry is a pure and lofty enterprise, hermetically sealed from the contamination of politics. Similarly, the true poet is supposedly dedicated first and foremost to art, which exists in a realm above and beyond the smutty world or power. Examining all of the assumptions underlying these attitudes is more than one column can achieve, so I'd like to concentrate in this issue on the idea of politics as an unsuitable subject for poems, and expose the myth of poetic language. The next column will elaborate on rhetoric as a positive feature of political poetry.

Where has the idea come from that politics is any less deserving of poetic attention than any other facet of human activity and interaction? Compare it to love. No one has ever said that love is an improper subject for poetry, but there has probably been more bad poetry written about love than about any other single subject in the past hundred years. Except, perhaps, about mothers. Yet nobody, flipping through a collection of embarrassingly cliched or over-written love poems ever comes to the conclusion that love simply does not belong in poetry. Neither does anyone object to yet another valentine ode by claiming that its language is strident, unconvicing, or rhetorical.

The connection between love and politics is even more striking when we consider how similar they are in effect. Both, for example, engender strong commitment on the part of the writer, which may, in the worst cases, distort the poet's perception of the subject. But again, no one reacts to the excesses of love poetry with outrage, or claims that the purity of the verbal arts have been sullied by writers who have an emotional axe to grind. Why, then, is political poetry singled out? It is just as valid a genre as love poetry, or poetry about autumn. The heart of the objection must have more to do with the assumption that poetic language is somehow essentially different from the language with which we talk about politics, and that no mix the two results not in art, but in propaganda.

This brings us to rhetoric, and the charge that when politics enters poetic discourse, the language of the poem suffers. Instead of attending to the effects of figures and rhythm, the poet whose subject is power substitutes argument for aesthetics, and the poem, it is alleged, becomes a means to an end rather than an end in itself. One of the many problems with this argument is that it attempts a distinction between political and non-political language, and privileges the latter. In a very specific sense, there is indeed a difference between language saturated with obvious political connotations--"oppression," "masses," "comrades,"--and language innocent of such associations. But this is an impossible distinction to maintain if we have any but the most neonlit conception of what politics really is. A poem need not be about a strike, or even use the word "workers" in order to display a political sensibility.

Finally, the material of poetry is language, and the very fibre of language is political. It is used to communicate, persuade, force, mask, seduce and abandon, bargain, console, celebrate, and represent--all activities which involve the polis, the community. No other artistic medium strikes me as involving the artist so deeply and immediately in politics as language, for its use as artistic material is impossible to separate from its use as a means of social identification, communication, and control. The concept of a pure poetic language, like that of a detached and apolitical art, is itself a profoundly political idea, which seeks to mask the struggle over whose words will be recorded, published, and distributed as poetry.

The tell-tale sign of that struggle is the vehemence of the declarations that political issues and opinions ruin poetry. What such statements really mean is that class-based notions of poetry as the leisurely contemplation of birds or grass are being challenged by poetry that seeks social change, or that gives a voice to the hitherto silenced. The best poets recognize how completely their work is embroiled in political realities, and may at times choose a deliberately ragged our unpoetic language to bring the politics of language more clearly to the surface of their poetry. The use of dialect and vernacular, of slang or obscenity, the violation of rules of spelling or punctuation are ways of striving against the grain of decorum in so-called "pure" poetry.

These are not the only artistic choices available to the poet and plenty of fine political poems carry out no bold experiments with form or diction. What all good political poetry has in common, though, is a recognition that writing well isn't a matter of avoiding rhetoric but of using it extremely well.
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Author:Austin-Smith, Brenda
Publication:Canadian Dimension
Date:Apr 1, 1991
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