Lines of Resistance
Will America see a rebirth of political verse?
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issues, political issues—are pressing, [American] poets have become ever more private, idiosyncratic, and withdrawn,” he wrote.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. Many poems in the book respond, with bitter simplicity, to the seemingly endless American bombing campaign against the Taliban: “When drones come, only the Taliban’s sons/are brave enough to answer them,” runs one couplet. Others threaten divine vengeance against the enemy: “May God destroy your tank and your drone,/you who’ve destroyed my village, my home.” The American-backed leader of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, comes in for criticism by name: “Hamid Karzai came to Kabul/to teach our girls to dress in dollars.”
Landays name friend and enemy; they praise and curse. They also pour out grief for those who have been killed in war: “The talib’s body lies under the dirt./His orphans grieve at the head of his grave.” Here, there is no question that the poet is personally addressing a real public, seeking to build solidarity and resistance in a way that is essentially political.
The poet and audience are living through the same trials, and the poet functions as the voice of her people. The same can be said of the late Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, who spent most of her career under communist censorship and repression. Her work, which won the Nobel Prize in 1996, reached a broad readership in Poland. Her posthumously published Map: Collected and Last Poems, translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak, reveals a poet so deeply engaged with politics that public matters weave themselves into her most private meditations. As she writes in “Children of Our Age”:
We are children of our age,
it’s a political age.
All day long, all through the night,
all affairs—yours, ours, theirs—
are political affairs….
Whatever you say reverberates,
whatever you don’t say speaks for itself.
So either way you’re talking politics.
Under Szymborska’s circumstances, the political is omnipresent precisely because it is invisible and unnamable; the poet and her reader are both aware of its subtle burden. Her poetry insists on the possibility of privacy and freedom, even when the state and its force seem to control all of life.
Both Szymborska’s poetry and landay show that it is possible for poets to speak effectively about public issues. Perhaps what has distinguished the United States from other countries is that, until recently, it seemed insulated from the war, terror, and poverty that plagued so much of the globe. And so, with the exception of a few outstanding poets like Allen Ginsberg and Adrienne Rich, most American poets have not seen their own task as essentially political. But in the 21st century that confidence has been under siege.
The success of Rankine’s Citizen, which distinguished itself by becoming the first poetry book to land on the New York Times best-seller list for nonfiction, suggests that Americans may be ready to hear truths from poetry that they would have ignored before. And, as America’s political predicament becomes increasingly poisonous and frightening, more of its poets might start producing work that, like Rankine’s, responds to—and drives—a civic awakening.
A version of this piece originally appeared in the May/June issue of FP magazine.
Illustration by Edmon De Haro