Photo: Carrie Mae Weems, “The Assassination of Medgar, Malcolm, and Martin.”
In Muriel Rukeyser’s The Life of Poetry, she details a story about a workshop she participated in during WWII. Participants were famous painters and poets from the time, and they were tasked, by an unnamed administration, with generating collaborative works of text and image about the war. Rukeyser lists several completed collaborations which evoked political resistance through metaphor, allusion, and imagery. However:
None of these was ever used. Advertising men came in, telling the administration that there were two ways of looking at ideas in a war against fascism. Those of us who were working on the project believed ideas were to be fought for; the advertising men believed they were to be sold. The audience, those at home in wartime, were not “citizens” or “people.” They were “customers.” No such ideas as ours were to be executed.
Despite being a very directly political writer and involved activist, it was not possible for Rukeyser’s poetry (nor the work of her workshop peers) to be used as propaganda, because it was aimed at opposing fascism–an ideology–rather than military victory–a strategy.
I have thought of this story often since November, but especially in the past few weeks, as it has become inarguably evident that fascism has come to roost in the Trump administration. I attend a small MFA program, where I often find myself in a room of five poets, contemplating what they see as dismal prospects for poetry in an age of fascism. In desperate, oppressive times, we view our present conflict as a war to be won. And there is an urgent need for fighting in this political sense. But within the necessities of the present moment, there is also an ideology that needs dismantling.
Poetry has a role in both, if we will allow it.
While it is important to interrogate our motives and impacts when we write, to dismiss any act of writing, but especially poetry, as irrelevant involves both misguided utilitarianism and overgeneralization. Acts of political resistance begin with the imagination. In order to create a more just and equitable world, we must have an idea of how that world may look. Once we have an idea, we must be able to communicate it. Inarguably, revolutionary ideas have been communicated in language throughout history.
Poetry is the art of ideas cast in language. A poem, simply defined, is a system of symbols. Unlike fiction or non-fiction, which have more certain boundaries, poetry is known for inventing its own restraint, its ability to defy outside rules and conventions. But most of all, poetry is an art that generates discourse. That is the intention of poetry: to be interpreted, and therefore discussed. Poetry is meant to be fought for and argued against.
Ironically, the idea that poetry is an inane means to achieve social change is one that’s mainly been manufactured by certain modernists, who argued for poetry as an expertise; poets like Ezra Pound (a fascist and anti-semite) and T. S. Eliot (a fundamental conservative) argued against the involvement of poetry in politics. The literary critic, Michael Hamburger, in his essay “Absolute Poetry and Absolute Poetics,” writes, “[I]t has been clear that to be non-political or anti-political at a time when the destiny of man presents its meaning in political terms is almost inevitably to be conservative or reactionary — at least under regimes that perpetuate an established structure of power and privilege.” In other words, poets who believe poetry has no role in politics are often ones that want to uphold existing systems, and, often times, are also ones who stand to benefit the most from such constructs.
For similar reasons, in his Republic, Plato wanted to outlaw poetry. He believed that poetry was dangerous because it portrays a subject as it appears to its speaker (as opposed to philosophy, which is strives to reveal truth). As such, poetry has the potential to incite emotions that could disrupt the order of the Republic–the only acceptable form would be militaristic lyrics and chants meant to inspire citizens toward battle.
But as many poets are far too aware, we live in a time that calls for much disruption. And far from emotions being futile: they are crucial, because emotions are at the heart of empathy, a necessary component to social change. Poetry is an art form that requires understanding of emotion and perspective: when we write poetry, we attempt to recreate perceptions that exist in the mind of the poet. Poetry is an art of the incremental, but those increments are important, as they impart the experience of the author into the reader.
Phillis Wheatley may be one of our earliest examples of this. Wheatley, as an American slave at the precipice of the Revolutionary War, wrote a book of poetry that bested literary conventions of the time and illuminated the hypocrisy of the idea of a free society that practiced enslavement. Historically, Wheatley’s poetry led to her freedom from slavery. Her mastery of the art form then played a pivotal (although contentious) role in the rhetoric of the Abolition Movement of the 19th century. Two hundred years after her death, the merit of Wheatley’s poetry continues to cycle through defilement and revival. But, if we look beyond the utility of Wheatley’s poetry and instead at its ideology, I believe we can see where it does the most work: when Western-European tropes in art are rendered masterfully by an enslaved African woman, ideas of dominance are also rendered, and therefore can be questioned or subverted.
Wheatley is far from the only example of this in the American literary tradition. More recently, Claudia Rankine’s book, “Citizen: An American Lyric,” has had a profound impact. Rankine’s book is groundbreaking for several reasons; first, it is a book of poetry which managed to expand beyond the limited audience of poets whom are usually the primary consumers of the genre. It’s a genre-defying book of hybrids, scooping up a number of accolades as both a book of poetry and non-fiction. Finally, most significantly, is the way in which Rankine succeeds in conveying the experience of anti-black racism: through art criticism, through second-person experiences, through protest and response to events past and present. Rankine’s book even made an appearance at a Donald Trump rally, when a black woman sat in the audience behind his podium, silently reading it.
While such a book is rare, it is not a total outlier. Often, poetry has been the means of resistance that propels voices that are silenced and excluded from mainstream mediums. And often, criticisms of poetry that deem it apolitical come from those who stand to benefit the most from that silence.
Our time is one that necessitates direct action. But there can be no direct action without actioned ideas. Poetry has an important role in this moment as a medium that thrives on defiance, whether it is genre conventions, subject matter, or rules of language. We as poets have a role, two-fold: to refuse complacency, and offer physical resistance when able. We also must use our words to inspire that resistance, to communicate its necessity, and to read empathetically. We must use our medium to wage a war of ideas in tandem to a war to be won. This is the work of resistance.