Political Poetry: The Level Gaze

Breathe in experience, breathe out poetry (Poem out of Childhood, Muriel Ruykeyser)

I’ve recently been asked to take part in the Toronto Art Bar Reading Series 8th Annual Dead Poets Society Reading, organized and hosted by David Clink. Along with the honor of his invitation, David included a list of 109 dead poets (yes, I counted them ) who were on his no list, i.e., they’ve been read in previous Dead Poets Society readings, so they can’t be read again. A lot of wonderful poets, who would have been on my A list had, therefore, to be excluded: Elizabeth Bishop, Tu Fu, Allen Ginsburg, Jane Kenyon, Gabriella Mistral and Pablo Neruda, Bronwen Wallace oh, you get the idea.

The poet I finally decided to return to was Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980) because this event seemed a great opportunity to get to know better the person and the work. Rukeyser wrote about 18 collections of poetry and half-dozen books of prose. A mid-20th-century American poet and feminist, she lived a politically engaged life, deeply concerned about issues of gender, race, class. She wrote about U.S. miners dying of silicosis, was in Spain as the Spanish Civil War began, traveled to Hanoi during the Vietnam War, and was investigated by the FBI for working with some mighty suspicious organizations, like the Daily Worker.

Rukeysers 1949 book, The Life of Poetry, grapples with the place of poetry in the modern world, and the general fear of poetry she perceives. She begins:

In this moment when we face horizons and conflicts wider than ever before, we want our resources, the ways of strength. We look again to the human wish, its faiths, the means by which the imagination leads us to surpass ourselves

Dont those conditions feel awfully familiar?

Just to give you a sense of her work and her poetics, a poem that has a little resonance with current political issues in Canada (but with my wishes she hadnt referred to the child as it):

A line of birds. A line of gods. Of bells.

Fourth Elegy. The Refugees

A line of birds. A line of gods. Of bells.
And all the birds have settled on their shadows.
And down the shadowed street a line of children.
You can make out the child ahead of you.
It turns with a gesture that asks for a soft answer.
It sees the smaller child ahead of it.
The child ahead of it turns. Now in the close-up
faces throw shadows off. It is yourself
walks down this street at five-year intervals,
seeing yourself diminishing ahead,
five years younger, and five years younger and young,
until the farthest infant has a face
ready to grow into any child in the world.

I think what has always drawn me about good political poetry is its level gaze: that frank seriousness, no fooling ourselves, no pulling the wool over our eyes, a poetry that takes a stand and enlarges our understanding of the world. But also a poetry that doesnt sacrifice the compression, metaphor, musicality and subtlety that are the hallmarks of good poetry. In some ways, to be excellent, I think a political poem has to be intensely personal; has to be, in fact, a kind of love poem.

Of course, the risks of political poetry are well known: the lack of poetic tension between the emotions and the intellect; the falling into sermon or exhortation; the temptation to rail, to show indignation; a sense of superiority over the (ignorant) reader. Ooogh! I readily acknowledge that there is a lot of bad political poetry.

Despite my admiration, I dont often write poems that take a political stance: its hard! I have written some about the environment, the Gulf War, the use of torture in Iraq, and the failed state of Zimbabwe:

Nonetheless, I feel inspired by women like Rukeyser who lived a life equally committed to poetry and to political action. Of course, we have a host of similarly brilliant and committed Canadian poets: Dionne Brand, Gary Geddes, George Elliott Clarke, Sina Queryas, Phil Hall, Sachiko Murikami, Liba (Libby) Scheier, Richard Lemm, and so many more past and present. I was interested to read in this blog about the reaction of Canadas National Citizens Coalition (our PM a former head of this organization) to Allan Coopers politically engaged collection, Poems Released on a Nuclear Wind.

Oh, and by the way, dear blog readers, as Poetry Editor for Our Times, Canadas Independent Labour Magazine www.ourtimes.ca, I am always looking for good political poetry, poems about work and social justice.

For a fuller bio of Muriel Rukeyser and some poems, see http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/100.

Maureen Hynes first book of poetry, Rough Skin (Wolsak and Wynn), won the League of Canadian Poets Gerald Lampert Award for best first book of poetry by a Canadian. Her second collection, Harms Way, was published by Brick Books, and third, Marrow, Willow, is forthcoming in 2011 from Pedlar Press in Toronto. She is a winner of the Petra Kenny Poetry Prize (London, England), and her poem, The Last Cigarette was chosen as one of 50 poems for Best Canadian Poems 2010, edited by Lorna Crozier. Maureen is poetry editor for Our Times magazine (ourtimes.ca).