want to addressat this junctureon the anniversary of 9/11--
a simplistic fatuity which Ive heard too often in discourse on
poetry in these United States: namely the idea that one cannot mix political
content with good poetry.
As Adrienne Rich has said. "I came out first as
a political poet, even before The Dream of a Common Language,
under the taboo against so-called political poetry in the U.S.
In other words, it wasn't done. And this is, of course, the only country
in the world where that has been true. Go to Latin America, to the Middle
East, to Asia, to Africa, to Europe, and you find the political poet
and a poetry that addresses public affairs and public discourse, conflict,
oppression, and resistance. That poetry is seen as normal. And it is
spent years editing world compendiums containing poetry of many lands,
such as Women on War: An International Reader (The Feminist Press,
2003) or On Prejudice: A Global Perspective (Anchor/Doubleday,
1993)I must say that I find Richs statement absolutely true
of Middle Eastern, Asian, African and European poetry.
only recently-this past spring--I read an article by Tim Scannell in
The Small Press Review containing the pronouncement that "Politics
kills poetry." Scannells generalization prompted me to write
this editorial as it seemed to dump many of the poems of Allen Ginsberg,
Grace Paley, Galway Kinnell, James Wright, Denise Levertov, June Jordan,
Carolyn Forche, Robert Bly, C.K. Williams, and Walt Whitman into the
garbage can of "dead poetry," along with poems by Pablo Neruda,
Anna Akhmatova, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Marina Tsveteyeva-- to say nothing
of the work of Chiu Chin of China or Percy Bysshe Shelley, and
William Shakespeare of England! I could throw in Sophocles, Aeschylus
and Euripides--along with Dante who was exiled for his religious and
political views, too--but I make my point from Enheuduanna to Tsai Wen-Ji,
Margaret Atwood to Alice Walker, Gwendolyn Brooks Clairible Alegria
or Wislawa Symborska! I could go on, but for the sake of brevity, I'll
let you, the reader think, of all the other good poets of political
content you can think of.
It's time to notice that poets like Jorie Graham and Charles Bernstein,
and all the myriad imitators of John Ashbery have had their day? Even
before 9/11, lovers of poetry were beginning to ache for meaningful
poems which address the sociopolitical issues of our time. People and
critics were beginning to get tired of "the world of poetry according
to Helen Vendler and Majorie Perloff." They were beginning to demand
clarity, accessibility, and most of all sociopolitical resonance to
poetry as the greatest poets always have--including William Blake when
he wrote "The Chimney Sweeper" and various other pieces commenting
on the usury of the poor. Or, Percy Shelly when he wrote "Queen
Mab," or "The Revolt of Islam" which, by the by,
makes excellent reading at this juncture in our human history!
Would those who disparage sociopolitical content in poetry disparage
Walt Whitmans "Democratic Vistas" or "I Sing the
Body Electric" as too political in content, as they most certainly
are about real issues from the problems of democracy to the institution
of slavery? Shall we consign Ginsbergs "Howl" and "Plutonium
Ode" to the garbage can of poetry murdered by politics? Shall we
damn James Wrights wonderful poem "Eisenhowers Visit
to Franco, 1959," or Pablo Nerudas "The United Fruit
Company," or Eugene Montales "Hitlers Spring,"
or Anna Akhmatovas "Requiem" one of the great sociopolitical
poems of all time, and, of course, "Baba Yar" by Yevegeny
Yetushenko or "Poem of the End" by Marina Tveteyeva to the
oblivion of poems killed by politics? And what of Shakespeares
"Richard III" with its moments of sheer poetry? Shall we sweep
it into the dustbin of works murdered by politics along with Maya Angelous
"Africa," or Robert Blys "The Teeth Mother Naked
at Last" or Galway Kinnells "Ode to a Child in Calcutta,"
or "Vapor Trail Reflected in a Frog Pond" or "The Fundamental
Project of Technology, " or "The Dead Shall be Raised Incorruptable?"
Shall we toss out Carolyn Forches "Return" into the
grave of dead poetry. My point is simply that many of our most vital
American poems are sociopolotical in nature from Walt Whitmans
"Democratic Vistas" to William Heyens series of poems
on the Gulf War to the anthology of accomplished American Poets hes
just edited titled, September 11, 2001: American Writers Respond
(Etruscan Press: Silver Springs: Maryland, 2002.)
Political content does not murder poetry at allrather it vitalizes
it. Hollow rhetoric? Now thats another matter, and no one is arguing
for that as a product of good poetry. Galway Kinnell told me in a recent
interview: "Every poem I encounter which moves me has some sort
of political or social force to it." Even poems about other creatures
in nature from bears to porcupines or pigs can have sociopolitical implications,
as Stanley Kunitz's poem about the salmon or the whale have political
resonance in this time of profound ecological disaster worsened by the
current administrations policies.
The point is that one can write a good or bad political poem or a good
or bad love poem! Rhetoric is one thing and poetry another, but one
need not belie sociopolitical content to write a good poem, and often
the muses come to us in the form of our humane conscience. If we gave
up our chance to offer moral resonance in poetry, wed be hard
put to find good poetry that stirs us with vitality. In my opinion,
Robert Pinskys best poem is "Shirt" inspired by Thomas
Hoods "The Song of the Shirt," About the Triangle-Shirt
Factory fire which trapped and killed many women laborers during the
industrial revolution in New York City, Pinskys poem has great
vitality in making us think of the very garment we are wearing and who
labored to make it as we read it. Issues of globalization come to mind
as we ponder it. It speaks clearly of the need of labor unions and workers
rights. The poems mentioned above have plenty of political implication
and therefore, political content.
Its absurd to go about saying "Politics murders poetry,"
because the canon of great poetry belies the statement at every turn.
Surely all the aforementioned poets write love poems, too, and lyrics
which are personal and do not necessarily have sociopolitical content,
but making our sociopolitical concerns the subject of our poems is what
makes poetry one of the humanities in the deepest sense of the word.
Frankly, I think the poem from Robert Mezeys latest collection,
which Tim Scannell mocked in his essay, is wittya crafty little
satire. I quote from it here to give it a better due:
I make a lot of
have a perfect tan;
Ive dominated women
ever since the world began
Yes, Im phallocentric,
logocentric, Eurocentric Man!
Ive conquered everybody
from Peru to Hindustan
And make em speak my
language, though they very
Im the king, the pope, the
CEO, the chieftan of the clan
Yes, Im phallologo,
logophallo, Eurocentric Man!
I see the world and all art and existence hanging on the brink and so
I have no patience these days for the work of John Ashberyas gifted
as he is with crafty language and imagery. Certainly, I have no use
for Jorie Grahams work which pales even beside Ashberys.
One Ashbery is enough in American poetry!. Ive had it with ennui
and the school of abstract expressionist, French nihilism! It is dead
for me especially since 9/11. I see self-involved, solipsistic verse
as unenduring poetry. These days, I need to fall asleep or wake up with
a copy of Percy Bysshe Shellys "Queen Mab or The Revolt of
was probably the most unconventional and idealistically political of
the English Romantics and he strove to speak truth from a sense of justice.
Radical in thought and ideals, he was a passionate spirit, gifted with
lyricism and eloquence. Critics who thought that politics had no place
in poetry gave poor Shelley much grief in his time. So my purpose here
is to help us feel free to care deeply about the injustices around us
in our poems. I want the playwrights and musicians, lyricists and librettists,
artists and painters all, to join in a passionate attempt to inspire
and articulate the salvation of this planetour Mother, Earth,
as she spins in the mystery of endless space, perhaps the only tear
drop of love and laughter afloat in all the darkness, as she carries
her children and their libraries of history and poetry aboard her dying
And, for all those who imagine they are protecting the canon from barbarians,
let me add that I find that people who like to belie "political
correctness" are usually reactionaries who really dont want
a person of color or a woman at the table. Theyd rather go back
to the days of oppression when Eurocentrism ruled the canon. Perhaps,
that is why Mezeys poem stings Scannell. I refuse to allow "PC"
to become a pejorative term as Tim Scannell has. To be "politically
correct," is to allow a multicultural ideology that has a place
for all cultures and concerns at the table. That is exactly what Mayakovsky
wanted when he went to the French Academy to bang his wooden spoon--
signifying social poverty-- on the silver set table and insult the precious
academicians who were pronouncing what should and shouldnt make
Before certain people with rightwing sensibilities started maligning
the term, "political correctness" meant being sure to invite
women and persons of color to participate with their opinions, too.
It meant not allowing a Eurocentric world to persist and it was "
a good thing!" Im still all for it, and for addressing the
real world of political concern in poetry. Im in good company
in this desire. Many of us do not wish to write merely "art for
arts sake"--especially after the" blow-back" of
9/11! Many of us believe, as Adrienne Rich does in What Is Found
There, that "You must write and read as if your life depended
on it,"-- because it does! While the ozone layer disappears along
with the polar bear, as his ice cap melts in a sea of global warming
flowing on into oblivion, let Mr. Scannell fiddle while Rome burns,
while the rest of us yell: "Fire!"
I am happy to say that the poets in of PoetsUSA.com are unafraid
of confronting the world they live in head on. Mr. Ashbery is a very
fine and cultured fellow, but one of him is enough in American poetry!
Do we really want to dwell within the same nihilistic message, about
how all just unravels, passes in the action of the moment, leaving us
nostalgically nowhere in the spool of meaninglessness over and
over again? Isnt it too dull a message as Rome burns? Isnt
the mystery of creation too vast for mere ennui or nostalgia!
Id rather be politically correct within a diverse and exciting
world of passionate sociopolitical concerncharged with vitality
and empathy for all the delicate intricacy of nature which is being
stifled and destroyed!
The purpose of this magazine is to "sing the body electric"
and dream of "democratic vistas" and "howl" at all
thats wrong and murderous in this world of "petroleum junkies!"
I want us poets to remember Korea, Vietnam, and Cambodia, El Salvador
and Afghanistan, and say no to war on Iraq, no to the "killing
fields" of oil and nuclear barons! Yes, to the earth! Yes, to the
great blue heron in his ballerina flight, the illusive snow leopard
in her mountain lair! Yes, to the humming bird hovering in the throats
of trumpet flowers; yes, to elephants with their intelligence! Yes to
the child who comes slithering from the cornucopia, and yes to the gelatinous
pearls in the childs head that can miraculously see rainbows;
yes, to noses that smell roses and ears that hear the ocean endlessly
rocking its cradle of salty melody! I dont want the arbitors of
effete intellectual tastes to make me feel pale and wan and worthless!
I want to try and save blessed, damned creation with powerful emotions
and sensual songs to my very last breath!
Gioseffi, Editor: PoetsUSA.com
Gioseffi is a poet, novelist, editor, literary critic, and activist
who has taught and lectured widely throughout the U.S. and Europe. She
published WOMEN ON WAR winning an American Book Award, (Touchstone/
Simon & Schuster:1990.) A new edition appeared from the Feminist
Press: NY, 2003. Her early works include,EGGS IN THE LAKE (BoaEditions,
Ltd., 1980) which won a grant award from The New York State Council
for the Arts in poetry, and a novel, THE GREAT AMERICAN BELLY, (Doubleday/Dell/New
English Lilbrary, New York, London, and Zagreb, 1979.) She won a PEN
Syndicated Fiction Award, 1990, for "Daffodil Dollars," and
has read her work widely appearing on numerous NPR and BBC radio and
television stations. A treatise on the woman's dance of birth, as counterpart
to the male war dance in folk cultures,EARTH DANCING: MOTHER NATURE'S
OLDEST RITE is related in theme to WOMEN ON WAR. During the 1980s,
she served as president of her local New York chapter of the National
Peace Action. On the nominating committee of The Olive Branch Awards,
she served with The Writers and Publishers Alliance for Nuclear Disarmament.
The Ploughshares Fund, an independent peace foundation, awarded her
grants for Women's Leadership Development. She was the U.S. Keynote
speaker at The Feminist International Book Fair in Barcelona, attended
by Petra Kelly and Grace Paley among numbeorus other writers and activists
for world peace. Active in the Civil Rights Movement in the early l960's,
she came, in 1993, to publish ON PREJUDICE A GLOBAL PERSPECTIVE (Anchor/Doubleday.)
She editsPoetsUSA.com, this website, which incorporates WiseWomensWeb
--nominated for "Best of the Web, 1998". Her latest books
of poetrty areWORD WOUNDS and WATER FLOWERS and GOING ON, from
VIA Folios @ Purdue U.1995 and 2000, and SYMBIOSIS; POEMS 2002 from
Rattapallax Press: NY available electronically from www.BookSurge.com
on the internet. Along with William Carlos Williams, her verses have
been transcribed in marble on the wall near Jersey Transit Trains of
the newly renovated PENN Station, 2002, in New York City where she makes
her home. Daniela was born in New Jersey and lived a good part of her
life there. She founded and edits NJPoets.com
Skylands Writers and Artists Association, Inc.
and Politics After 9/11" Copyrighted (C) 2002 by Daniela Gioseffi.
All rights, including elctronic, are reserved.
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