On Political Poetry

The poet Samuel Hazo, at his installation as the first state poet of Pennsylvania in 1993, declared that “we should learn to listen to our poets here and now — and not wait for history to confer on them their already earned validity.” Poets like Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Lorca, Yeats, Whitman, and Frost, he continued, would be remembered long after their contemporaries – the military leaders, political officials, industrialists, and celebrities – have been forgotten. “One reason for the unforgettability of poets is that they somehow speak for more than themselves,” Hazo continued. “Day by day we are so used to hearing voices that speak for individual constituencies or institutions that we tend to be deaf to those voices that speak from and to our common humanity.”

Believing in Hazo’s idea that the star of poetry is our only guide, I asked several well-known poets about their views concerning the relationship between poetry and politics, particularly foreign policy. Here are their responses.

Farideh Hassanzadeh–Mostafavi: All over the world, there is a gap between artists and politicians. They are vastly different in their ideals. It seems in your country this gap is widening. How do you feel about America’s big-stick policy toward Third World countries?

Adrienne Rich: American democracy has been imperfect from the beginning, and has been increasingly endangered for several decades. I am utterly against imperialism, unilateralism, colonialism of all kinds. I have opposed my government’s past and present adventures in this regard for much of my life. At present, an ominous note is being struck regarding Iran, as “the next Iraq.” This is part of a policy of “perpetual war” and world-domination which I and thousands of other Americans find intolerable and have demonstrated, written, and voted against. That we have not been listened to by the current regime does not mean we will cease in our efforts as citizens of this country to register opposition.

Billy Collins: I am looking closely at your question. I agree with the first part of it so much that I cannot bring myself to answer the second part. I defer to Yeats’ “On Being Asked for a War Poem.”

I think it best at times like these
a poet’s mouth be silent

Joy Harjo: I am ashamed of America’s small-minded and small-hearted policy toward other countries, other peoples. But, it doesn’t surprise me. This policy was and remains behind genocidal policies against indigenous peoples here. It forms the basis of the educational system, the philosophical systems, everything. Many in this country have divorced themselves from any historical, mythical, deeper knowledge. Most don’t read anymore, or engage with literature or higher thought. Even their religion is like being part of a sports team: they want to win a game. It is sad, even shameful. To be a poet, especially a female indigenous poet in these times in this country, is to be a strange one at the edge of death of a world.

Marilyn Krysl: I’m embarrassed by my government’s reputation as a bully empire. What can I say to friends in Latin America, in Asia, in Africa and India and Europe? I’m ashamed of the way successive administrations in my government have pressed for the spread of world-wide war by encouraging a huge weapons industry on the excuse that this provides employment. Psychotherapists in the West talk about people having “control issues.” Today in The New York Times there’s news that the Pentagon is already starting to build a world wide web for war. Peter Teets, under secretary of the U.S. Air Force, told Congress this web would allow Marines in a Humvee in the middle of a sandstorm to open their laptops and “request imagery” from a spy satellite of the enemy around them. Is that not a perfect example of a control issue? The war makers may well be people addicted to control. Perhaps they imagine that if they could get total control, their fear would disappear. This desire to free themselves from fear in this way is laughable. Is it because they have no friends that they see enemies everywhere? They seem to think the 9/11 attack will disappear if they themselves do something even more terrible. But this fixation on fear, war, and weapons makes it more and more likely that what they fear most will in fact happen because they themselves are encouraging it to happen.

This is the example we set before the young. All the world’s children are growing up in this atmosphere.

Let’s send these leaders back to the birthing room. If they actually watched a baby miraculously coming into the world could they still make those weapons? Send them back to kindergarten, back to college. Meanwhile the rest of us can cook some good food and sit and eat it together and talk about the burning issues of the day. We’ll agree and disagree and keep cooking and eating and talking things around until things get better. Any negotiations will succeed only if the food is good and plentiful. We need a very long dinner party in order to come to our senses.

Farideh Hassanzadeh–Mostafavi: How do you interpret the 9/11 tragedy? What do you think about classifying American literature before and after the tragedy?‏

C.P. Aboobacker: The 9/11 tragedy is a great calamity, of course, a man-made calamity. The main thing about it is that the U.S. rulers are as responsible for it as the perpetrators of the tragedy are. Aggressors never learn lessons; in defeat they are vengeful, in victory they are arrogant. If imperialist hegemony does not stop, terrorism also will not stop. We lose the moral right to ask anyone to do or not to do anything.

As for American literature, I do not want to read government sponsored literature. I still stand on the beautiful title by Alice Walker: All That We Love Can Be Saved.

Marlyn Krysl: 9/11 is an event that cries out for us to be courageous — not in attacking but in sharing resources and sharing educating and sharing peace-building. I refuse to be a cynic. I want to be a bleeding heart. We owe the world’s kids hope. They matter. I want us to keep addressing the burning issues. Racism, classism, and sexism have been burning issues in my country and still are. You once asked me why the work of many American writers seemed concerned with the self and were only casually interested in the world beyond their national borders. I replied that there are many writers here who are ardently involved in global issues and I named some names. Now 9/11 makes it imperative that all of us, including artists, start admiring ourselves in the mirror less and addressing our burning global issues more. If we don’t, I fear that every god will leave us.

Rati Saxena: The September tragedy is very unfortunate, no doubt. But worse things are taking place in the world every day. I am against terror, any type of terror. Art and literature is to develop love and happiness, not hatred. All the bad qualities are part of human mind. They are reminders of the animal in us. Art can purify our good qualities and subdue the bad ones. So, the September tragedy is not the only one against which we should raise our voices.. We should condemn all tragedies.

Sam Hamill: Dividing American literature as “before” and “after” 9/11 seems arbitrary to me. 9/11 also marks the overthrowing of the duly-elected Chilean government of Allende, too, and we might, as arbitrarily, divide American literature at that date, too, in 1973.

The attack by Al Qaeda came on George W. Bush’s watch, and it came after this administration had received very clear indications that it would come. W. has excelled at lying and at revising history. After the re –election of this man, we may divide American literature at that point: Before and after the fall of American democracy.

Farideh Hassanzadeh–Mostafavi: You involve yourself in the disasters of the modern world and sympathize with victims of war and of Imperialism. Does it move you away from poetry as a form of art or does it take you closer to the true essence of poetry?

Adrienne Rich: I believe that for poets all over the world the human condition, not simply their own private griefs, has been a profound source of poetry. I think of Neruda, Roque Dalton, Nazim Hikmet, Mahmoud Darwish, Bertolt Brecht, Paul Celan, Kamau Brathwaite, Aimé Césaire, our Walt Whitman, Muriel Rukeyser, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, Thomas McGrath, June Jordan — to name some whose work I turn to over and over. For me, the question is: Why should poetry not engage with the largest possible range of materials, and how can we live in a world such as this and draw a circle around our concerns?

Joy Harjo: In this country, so-called political poetry is disparaged as poetry of rhetoric and simple, raging statement. I believe that the political underlies all expression. How a poem comes to be made, what and how is spoken, what language, and in what context the poem exists – all have political basis. That I write in English is a political statement. Turning back to my own indigenous language, adding it to the mix, or redefining English…this makes the work political. Too, I always keep in mind, that poetry has its own integrity outside the political boundaries of countries. It has allegiance to the soul. The soul is deeper and wider than any earthly ocean.

Maryam Ala Amjadi: The poet is the awareness that is stored in every particle of this universe, and as it is in the nature of the particle, it can divide, it can grow, and it can unite with the whole.

The poet is always busy giving birth to that awareness every time he writes and each time he is reborn with it too. Awareness must strike like thunder for it is of a painful origin; it must shake the wits out of you. It must challenge you, for awareness is not the answer to challenge but it is the initiating question itself. A true poet strikes. A true poet hurts and wounds and sometimes even humiliates, because poetry must be an event not an occasion. You can never really get close enough to someone if you do not touch them and to touch deeply and profoundly is to hurt. It is the wounds that breed familiarity; it is the scar that remains as a memorandum between you and them, one that you could never forget even if you wanted to.

A true poet hurts. He is like an anarchist who believes in deconstruction for reconstruction in a world of concepts and ideas, concepts that have been personalized into theories for long and inoculated under the skin of our mentality.

The poet says a big no. The poet is not scared to say no. The poet knows if he’s patient enough to survive the void, the deserts of absurdity, and not to give in to the mirages of reality, then he will get safely to a meaningful land where he does not need to cook up an excuse to stay alive and awake.

A true poet brings forth the awareness that is lurking within each and every particle of the universe, makes us delete the conventional files of our bureaucratic hearts, distort the framed structures of our digital minds, and throw away to the dogs the bread of dogma that is given to us everyday. That is why there can be no distinction between poetry and politics.

Sam Hamill: Poetry is social speech. Whether the poem is whispered to one’s paramour or presented to a huge public audience, whether it’s said in a conversational way or sung or chanted, the poem is social communication. We often hear of people “speaking from the heart. ” In Buddhist practice, we have a bodhisattva, Kannon (Japanese) or Kuan Shih Yin (Chinese). Her name means she-who-perceives-the-cries-of-the-world, and she’s called the Bodhisattva of Compassion. She embodies the practice of compassion. All Buddhist practice is rooted in compassion. “Being is suffering” is the First Noble Truth.

To be so self-engaged that one becomes disengaged from the conditions of one’s brothers and sisters, one’s community or country, or the community of nations and cultures, is disastrous.

The good poem connects us more deeply with the world, whether through a flower or a war.

Farideh Hassanzadeh–Mostafavi: I strongly agree with the Kafka’s statement that says: “war, in its first phase, emerges out of total lack of sense of imagination.” How do you view the main source of war?”

Maryam Ala Amjadi: The word “war” is given birth from the womb of unawareness by the hands of ignorance.

This word conveys not a language but the distortion of it. War is the rebelling of language and opposing to dialogue among things and concepts. War is an anti-dialogue, with an accent of hate.

Take, for example, the opposition in the language of day and night, light and dark, sound and silence, truth and lie, yes and no.

All of these things and concepts speak to each other with an accent of conflict, for every element and particle in this world is forever responding to its counter elements and particles.

But what if we take off those eyeglasses? What if we do as the wonderful Iranian poet, Sohrab Sepehri says: “One must wash the eyes, one must see in another way”? If we take off those glasses and peep in those thousand windows to look up and down on the garden of creation and the heavens that watch over it, maybe then we can see the dialogue of love among everything and every concept in this world.

If we can see the love-making of sound to silence then we can hear the beautiful music or melody that fruits out of this love making. Then we are able to see that when the day and the night meet, they play a game in the wonderful accent of love and paint dawn and dusk for us. When truth says hello to lie, it is then that the wild horses of fantasy are born and when yes and no shake hands, it is then we can smile at our own maybe and perhaps.

War is not a dialogue of words but the rebelling and distortion of them, a land where all letters are scrambled and slaughtered devoid of any meaning. No word is born out of such mess, and therefore the possibility of any sign of lovemaking dialogue is gone. And an anti-dialogue demands an anti-hero as its victim. It is absurd, totally and truly. War is the death of words.

Sam Hamill: War is childish — infantile — behavior. War is a country soiling its diapers and pitching a fit, a temper tantrum. Kafka’s right: no imagination. Sappho’s right: war is childish. I like to think of that splendid movie about Gandhi, and the image of him in his loincloth, walking stick in hand, standing up to the British military, absolutely fearless in his convictions about nonviolence. I think of Nazim Hikmet rising up out of the bilge where he’d been thrown, and he throws back his head and looks up at his oppressors, and he sings. The only way to achieve peace is to embody peace. By embodying peace within ourselves, we bring peace to the home. With peace in the home, we bring peace to our community. With peace in the community, we bring peace to the state. Peace comes from within, and it requires great imagination. It cannot be imposed from above, such imposition being, by definition, un-peaceful.

That is why the Saddams and Bushes and Osamas and other tyrants wage fear. Fear unsettles peaceful lives. Fear brought the Nazis to power. Fear allows us (Americans) to finance a huge military while our schools and our country’s infrastructure are falling apart. Bush wants a fearful future. He’s a heaven-or-damnation Christian and believes in an apocalypse. “Believe in me or burn in Hell!”

Scary stories keep the children in their beds.

C. P. Aboobacker is an Indian poet and translator, and has published four collections of poetry and many other titles in history and politics. Maryam Ala Amjadi‘s first book was published when she was a highschool student and now, at 22, is one of the most important Iranian contemporary poets. Billy Collins is a poet who served two terms as the 11th Poet Laureate of the United States, from 2001 to 2003. Sam Hamill has been the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Lila Wallace-Readers Digest Fund, the U.S.-Japan Friendship Commission, and two Washington Governor’s Arts Awards. Joy Harjo has received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers Circle of The Americas and the 2003 Arrell Gibson Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Oklahoma Center for the Book. Farideh Hassanzadeh–Mostafavi is an Iranian poet, translator, and freelance journalist. Marilyn Krysl has published seven books of poetry and three of stories. Adrienne Rich has received many awards including the Ruth Lilly Prize, the Wallace Stevens Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Award, the Lambda Literary Award, the Lenore Marshall/Nation Award, a MacArthur Fellowship, the Lannan Literary Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Bollingen Prize. Rati Saxena is an Indian poet and translator is the editor of Kritya, a web-journal in English and Hindi, devoted to poetry: www.kritya.in.