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Poetry and Politics After 9/11
An Editorial by Daniela Gioseffi

 

I want to address—at this juncture—on the anniversary of 9/11-- a simplistic fatuity which I’ve 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 honored."


Having 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 Rich’s statement absolutely true of Middle Eastern, Asian, African and European poetry.

Yet, only recently-this past spring--I read an article by Tim Scannell in The Small Press Review containing the pronouncement that "Politics kills poetry." Scannell’s 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 Ch’iu 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 Whitman’s "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 Ginsberg’s "Howl" and "Plutonium Ode" to the garbage can of poetry murdered by politics? Shall we damn James Wright’s wonderful poem "Eisenhower’s Visit to Franco, 1959," or Pablo Neruda’s "The United Fruit Company," or Eugene Montale’s "Hitler’s Spring," or Anna Akhmatova’s "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 Shakespeare’s "Richard III" with its moments of sheer poetry? Shall we sweep it into the dustbin of works murdered by politics along with Maya Angelou’s "Africa," or Robert Bly’s "The Teeth Mother Naked at Last" or Galway Kinnell’s "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 Forche’s "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 Whitman’s "Democratic Vistas" to William Heyen’s series of poems on the Gulf War to the anthology of accomplished American Poets he’s just edited titled, September 11, 2001: American Writer’s Respond (Etruscan Press: Silver Springs: Maryland, 2002.)


Political content does not murder poetry at all–rather it vitalizes it. Hollow rhetoric? Now that’s 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 administration’s 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, we’d be hard put to find good poetry that stirs us with vitality. In my opinion, Robert Pinsky’s best poem is "Shirt" inspired by Thomas Hood’s "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, Pinsky’s 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.


It’s 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 Mezey’s latest collection, which Tim Scannell mocked in his essay, is witty—a crafty little satire. I quote from it here to give it a better due:


I make a lot of money and
have a perfect tan;
…I’ve dominated women
ever since the world began—
Yes, I’m phallocentric,
logocentric, Eurocentric Man!


I’ve conquered everybody
from Peru to Hindustan
And make ‘em speak my
language, though they very
rarely can;


I’m the king, the pope, the
CEO, the chieftan of the clan—
Yes, I’m 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 Ashbery—as gifted as he is with crafty language and imagery. Certainly, I have no use for Jorie Graham’s work which pales even beside Ashbery’s. One Ashbery is enough in American poetry!. I’ve 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 Shelly’s "Queen Mab or The Revolt of Islam!"

Shelly 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 planet—our 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 ecosystems.


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 don’t want a person of color or a woman at the table. They’d rather go back to the days of oppression when Eurocentrism ruled the canon. Perhaps, that is why Mezey’s 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 shouldn’t make good poetry.

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!" I’m still all for it, and for addressing the real world of political concern in poetry. I’m in good company in this desire. Many of us do not wish to write merely "art for art’s 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? Isn’t it too dull a message as Rome burns? Isn’t the mystery of creation too vast for mere ennui or nostalgia! I’d rather be politically correct within a diverse and exciting world of passionate sociopolitical concern—charged 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 that’s 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 child’s 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 don’t 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!

Daniela Gioseffi, Editor: PoetsUSA.com
Daniela 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 1980’s, 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 of Skylands Writers and Artists Association, Inc.

"Poetry and Politics After 9/11" Copyrighted (C) 2002 by Daniela Gioseffi. All rights, including elctronic, are reserved.

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