October 25, 2012

When poetry and politics converge


Two weeks ago, I attended the Dodge Poetry Festival in New Jersey and watched poets abandon any discussion of ‘craft’ and drift into more customary and at times placating readings from their books. These sorts of panels are usually a wash anyway — poets with more than five books out seem to have drifted so far from any discussion of how they write that hearing their attempt to recollect it is like watching them dig up the nuances of a dream they had when they were ten.

From the fifteen poets I saw read, I left thinking about just two: Raúl Zurita and Amiri Baraka. Zurita was on a panel called “Voices for the Voiceless” and when it was his turn to speak — while the other panelists, laureates Phillip Levine and Natashea Tretheway, National Book Award-winner Juan Felipe Herrera, skirted the issue — he immediately and rather justifiably refuted the title of their conversation. Among noting that poetry cannot undo atrocities, save lives, or end wars, he said that poetry certainly cannot give voice to the voiceless. He has seen military coups of his native Chile, been detained with thousands in the hold of a ship, watched bodies thrown from helicopters into volcanoes, and has attempted to blind himself with ammonium acid in protest of the atrocities he has witnessed. He can speak with some authority on the subject.

Baraka had a more hopeful outlook in his conversation with a Newark historian. He spoke of taking poetry to the people. He said that when he used to teach, he would tell his students to go read their poems to the “men working on the street” and ask those men what they thought. While detained after the Newark Rebellion — he refuses to use the word riot because “riot is what college students do when they get drunk” — it took a call to Allen Ginsberg, who then had to call Jean Paul Sartre, who then phoned the judge, and finally had Baraka released from jail.

Poets, then, for better or for worse, tend to be politically involved — sometimes radically and sometimes radically in the wrong direction. Ezra Pound was outright fascist, Orwell wrote about W.B. Yeats’ own fascist tendencies, and according to the recent Met exhibit, the jury is still out on Gertrude Stein.

Consequently, I ask our readers: should poets, and by extension literary writers, stay outside the political fray? Or is that an impossible task, one that cannot, should not be left alone?



Will Vincent is an intern at Melville House.