A Call For More Political Poetry On America’s Op Ed Pages

Why isn’t there more poetry on the Op Ed and opinion pages of this country’s newspapers?

The answer to this question might seem obvious. Poetry isn’t viewed by newspaper editors (nor by most American poets) as a primary medium of popular political and economic expression. It’s seen as a way to express personal feelings, and best-suited for the pages of small literary journals. Except for snippets of verse that appear when a new poet laureate is named, and perhaps a cutsie rhyme or two to herald the first day of Spring, opinion pages are poetry deserts.

There is nothing natural about this absence, however. Indeed, from an historical perspective, it’s a fluke.

The first recognized political commentators, the first political talking heads, the first true Op Ed professionals, were bards. Before there was even writing, members of ruling elites never really knew where they stood until the old blind guy with the lyre posted the insiders scorecard in rhyme.

Many of the world’s greatest poets since that time have turned their talents to verse that would certainly have belonged on Op Ed pages had such structures existed when they wrote. It takes no great effort to list poets whose work –in terms of content, contemporary sensibilities and length — would have fit perfectly in an Op Ed setting. Percy Shelley spoke of poets as being “the legislators of the world.” In truth, they have far more often functioned as the Op Ed writers of the world.

Until recently, poetry was a standard feature in American newspapers. Some papers even had in-house poets.

The most famous was probably Edgar Guest who wrote a daily poem for the Detroit Free Press well into the 1950′s, and was also widely syndicated. Today, many smaller newspaper and even some national ones (such as the New York Times) still have sections that occasionally run verse.

Poetry on Op Ed pages, however, poetry that regularly speaks about political, economic and social issues of immediate interest to a wide audience, is nowhere to be found. And this is a serious loss to the public. Robert Frost described poetry as “the best possible way of saying anything.” No one could argue against the need for “the best possible way of saying anything” on Op Ed pages today, where public policies that affect us all are debated and shaped.

To make this possible, two sets of attitudes have to change: poets have to refocus their energies; and Op Ed editors have to view poetry in a different way.

On the poets’ side, we need a lot less of the post-modern, endlessly introspective, culture for the cognoscenti, self-consciously unstructured work that is geared to winning sinecures, juried prizes, and praise from a tight circle of learned professionals. What’s needed, in other words, is less Percy Dovetonsils and more Percy Shelley. What’s needed is a regular flow of poems about Social Security, the occupation of Iraq, changing tax laws, the current state of political parties, campaign finance reform, pay-to-play government contracting –the gut issues that bring fourth the institutional policies that order public life. We need poetry that enriches national debate, changes points of views, and provides better ways of understanding and altering contemporary political, economic, and social realities.

Are there poets in our midst who know enough about such standard Op Ed subjects to discuss them intelligently in verse? Of course there are.

Many of the world’s greatest poets have always had other work lives in government, banks, and even insurance companies where these subjects are day-day-fare. There are also a fair number of people who today write Op Ed pieces in prose who have the ability to write comparable pieces in verse — pieces that might well be far better because the added discipline of finding the perfect word or phrase to encapsulate a thought within a poetic framework sharpens images and creates more lasting effects on readers.

Indeed, poetry is inherently more memorable than prose. That’s why early professional story teller-commentators worked in verse. Wouldn’t it be nice if some of today’s Op Ed writers presented their audience with thinking packaged in ways that encouraged verbatim retention for years — or for always?

On the Op Ed side of things, we need editors who recognize poetry as a real world way to look at the issues covered in their pages. Not something that belongs in what used to be patronizing termed “the women’s pages.’ Not something that gets slotted in a little “Poet’s Corner” box that gives an occasional nod to the culturally elevated. But rather, an ongoing flow of pertinent, powerful, incisive, punchy, memorable, timely commentary in verse about nitty-gritty political, economic and social realities of interest to the widest possible audience.

In his poem, “England in 1819.” Shelley wrote of

Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know,
But leech-like to their fainting country cling,
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow…

These 24 words, in a 14-line poem that runs to less than 100 words in all, bring to clear and vivid life the condition of post-Napoleanic England. They suggest what Op Ed poetry can offer.

And what a 750-word Op Ed prose piece never can.

Editor’s note: Michael Silverstein is also known as Wall Street Poet