Magazine article Foreign Policy

Lines of Resistance: Will America See a Rebirth of Political Verse?

Magazine article Foreign Policy

Lines of Resistance: Will America See a Rebirth of Political Verse?

Article excerpt

In her 2014 book Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine combines verse, prose, and images to create a powerful record of the black American experience. She offers many anecdotes of insult and erasure, such as when a man cuts in line at a drugstore. "Oh my God, I didn't see you," he says to the poet. But it is the failure to be seen and known that, in Rankine's analysis, accounts for much more serious injustices, including the fatal police shootings of young black men. Indeed, to read Citizen is to realize that, when Rankine writes about politics, her first task is to convince her readers, especially white Americans, that their lives are already deeply implicated in politics, whether or not they want to admit it. This is perhaps an unusual exercise for a contemporary American poet, but Citizen is the rare book of poems that has actually managed to shape political discussion: It made news headlines last November, when a black woman read it demonstratively at a Donald Trump rally--a clear rebuke to the Republican presidential candidate's exclusionary rhetoric.

Poetry and politics might seem to lie at opposite poles of human nature. After all, politics is the world of argument and huge populations, while poetry deals in imagination and addresses its readers one by one. Yet ever since Plato banned the poets from his Republic, both poets and political thinkers have intuited that there is some deep connection between the two pursuits. Percy Bysshe Shelley, a Romantic revolutionary who lived during an age of conservative repression in England, famously claimed that "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind," the visionaries charged with the power to see and shape the future. But on the brink of World War II, Anglo-American poet W.H. Auden retracted that boast, when he wrote in an elegy to the Irish poet and political activist W.B. Yeats: "Poetry makes nothing happen."

Does poetry make nothing happen today only because poets have lost confidence in their ability to change the world? That was the thesis critic Mark Edmundson advanced in a controversial 2013 essay in Harper's magazine. "At a time when collective issues--communal issues, political issues--are pressing, [American] poets have become ever more private, idiosyncratic, and withdrawn," he wrote. "Their poetry is not heard but overheard, and sometimes is too hermetic even to overhear with anything like comprehension." Many poets themselves agree. David Biespiel, for instance, observed in the May 2010 issue of Poetry that "American poetry and America's poets remain amazingly inconsequential to the rest of the nation's civic, democratic, political, and public life."

Such is the charge that has been leveled against modern American poetry for generations: It is too difficult, too specialized, and uninterested in communication or audience. A poet who is turned entirely inward, critics argue, has no concern for history or politics.

In other parts of the world, by contrast, poetry remains at the intersection of politics and culture. In 2014, the American poet and journalist Eliza Griswold edited I Am the Beggar of the World, in which she introduced the English-speaking world to landay, an ancient form of oral poetry that flourishes in Afghanistan among Pashto-speaking women. Consisting of two lines and a total of 22 syllables, landays, Griswold discovered, were flexible enough to be used for both love poetry and political commentary. …

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