Bringing Poetry Back Into Politics
Why is poetry no longer one of the primary forms of political analysis and commentary in this country?
The answer to this question might seem obvious. Most media, at least the high profile print, broadcast and online media accessed by most people on a regular basis, no longer view poetry as an appropriate means of political analysis and commentary — a view largely shared by most American poets whose work these days tends to deal with subjects and in ways best-suited for the pages of small literary journals or Friday night bar readings.
There’s nothing natural about this situation, however. Indeed, from an historical perspective it’s a fluke.
The first recognized political commentators, the first political talking heads, were bards. Before there was even widespread literacy, members of ruling elites never really knew where they stood until the old blind guy with the lyre posted the insiders scorecard in verse.
Many of the world’s greatest poets since that time have turned their talents to subjects that would certainly have belonged on editorial pages or Sunday morning political talk shows had such structures existed when they wrote. It takes no great effort to list poets whose work – in terms of content, period sensibilities and length — would have fit perfectly in such media realms. Percy Shelley spoke of poets being “the legislators of the world.” In truth, they have far more often functioned as the political commentators of the world.
Robert Frost once described poetry as “the best possible way of saying anything.” No one could argue against the need to apply “the best possible way of saying anything” to our politics today, politics now far too often dominated by the worst possible ranting about virtually everything. When Herbert Hoover said “what this country needs is a great poem” he was remembering how much certain poems did to inspire his own life of public service.
There is a power in poetry that even the greatest prose lacks. It is a power linked to the way our minds retain the magical flow of great verse. Readers here have probably read or heard thousands of editorials and prose verbal arguments over the years, and can’t repeat a single line of any of them verbatim, but can recall perfectly lines of poetry learned in high school.
What, then, is needed to bring poetry back to the prominent place it deserves in our present political dialogue, a place where it’s so sorely needed? Both poets and media managers have to start viewing it in a different way.
On the poets’ side, work must be structured less as cultural artifacts for the cognoscenti, less geared to winning praise from a tight circle of learned academics, and more as accessible vehicles focused on the political, social and economic issues that so many Americans are now feeling so intensely.
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, tax laws, the current state of political parties, campaign finance reform, Beltway dysfunction, food banks, income disparities – the gut issues that bring fourth the institutional policies that order public life. A poetry that enriches national debate, changes points of views, provides better ways of understanding contemporary political, economic, and social realities.
On the media managers side of things we need editors and broadcast executives who recognize poetry as a real world way to look at the issues they cover. Not something they only acknowledge (much less employ) only when a new poet laureate is named, or after a poet reads some work at a presidential inaugural. But rather an ongoing flow of pertinent, powerful, incisive, punchy, memorable, timely verse commentary about nitty-gritty political, economic and social realities of interest to the widest possible audiences. Their audiences.
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, bring to clear and vivid life the condition of post-Napoleanic England. They suggest what political poetry can offer. And what a 750-word prose piece or a prose sound bite never can.
(Michael Silverstein’s new book of satirical political poetry, This God-Awful Political Season (In Verse), will be published in March 2012, and is now featured on Kickstarter.