Poetry Criticism: Poetry and Politics

To establish a platform for discussion—and inevitably to over-simplify, to establish a heuristic in what has become a huge body of discussion on the subject—I would argue that contemporary poets espouse three main views of the relationship of politics and poetry. One caveat: Any poem that takes itself seriously as poetry with complex interactions of prosody and lexicon will tend to address all three points of view, but I think the division of approaches is useful.

1. The Content View: One approach represents themes and positions as content in the poem in order to take a relevant political position. The writing process is instrumental to delivering this content or lexical view.

2. The Prosodic View: Another point of view argues that limiting technical mechanisms to representation, to narration and description concedes the most significant political issues of our time. To avoid ceding strategic ground to a political opposition, these poets use a more indirect approach to presenting political ideas by exploring the meaning embedded in prosody. We can call this alternately the rhetorical, non-lexical, or prosodic view.

3. The Non-political View: The third perspective is that poetry need not address quotidian issues of politics. Poetry is really about humanity’s relationship to nature, the universe and the individual’s most deeply felt personal realities that transcend mere politics.

James Sherry, AlYoung.org, February 9th, 2008

Here’s a great discussion I found on AlYoung.org about the aims and goals of poetry. It was organized by the Poetry Society of America in 2000, and features “Thomas Sayers Ellis, Marilyn Hacker, Erica Hunt and Ron Silliman.” James Sillman’s opening remarks are particularly engaging, touch (unknowingly) on the great divide in English Studies between Rhetoric and Composition and Literary Studies.

Sillman cites as an example of The Content View, Thomas Hardy’s WWI poem, “Channel Firing”: “All nations striving strong to make/ Red war yet redder. Mad as hatters/ They do no more for Christes sake/ Than you who are helpless in such matters.” It’s language that is “instrumental to the theme and transparent, a lens focusing the eye of the reader.” This is what Pierre Bourdieu called a popular ethos and its has long shaped composition courses.

And for The Prosodic View, Ron Silliman’s“Sunset Debris” 50 pages of questions with no answers. “Are we there yet? Do we need to bring sweaters? Where is the border between blue and green? Has the mail come? Have you come yet? Is it perfect bound? Do you prefer ballpoints? Do you know which insect you most resemble?” At the center is interpretation, “the writing process and the words themselves together create meaning.”

Here Sillman is in effect defining what Bourdieu called the formalist aesthetic; it’s shaped literary studies for a hundred years. (Sillman rejects the third position as obviously irrelevant to a discussion about poetry and politics, but I am not sure he was correct to do do.) As Sillman says towards the end of his introduction, “poetry contradicts business-as-usual expectations in a way that makes the very act of writing poetry political.”

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and Smarthinking.com. I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol] writinginthewild.com

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