Poets and Politics

January 31, 2012 § 8 Comments

Our discussions about narrative in the previous post has got me thinking about the social role of poetry.  There has been lots around about this lately, mainly at the social control end of the spectrum (Michael Gove and Vladimir Putin each having a go at that old chestnut the ‘canon’).

How does the poet respond to all this?  How does his or her political stance in relation to the world influence what he or she produces?  I ask because I’ve just read an old essay about Lorca which asks the same question – albeit in a different, more dangerous, setting to current education agendas.*  In it, Manuel Duran argues that Lorca – unlike Mayakovsky or Steinbeck – ‘does not depend on social movements for his place in history’, but instead tries ‘to hold himself aloof from history, or to encompass all of history, which amounts to the same thing.’  This, Duran says, is not an abrogation of social responsibility: Lorca wishes to describe, to bear witness, to suffering.  ‘It is this breadth of sympathy and imagination that makes Lorca a “democratic” poet, a universal poet, rather than any determined historical commitment on his part’.

I think poets are the products of their social as well as their personal experiences; and that, as a result, the poetry they produce is all political in some sense or another.  Poetry isn’t a polemical form of writing: it observes.  Equally, though, it chooses (sometimes consciously, sometimes not) the camera angle, the lighting, and who gets the best lines.

*Manuel Duran, Lorca: A Collection of Critical Essays (Prentice-Hall, 1962), p13.

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§ 8 Responses to Poets and Politics

  • Brian Lewis says:

    We might also ask: how does (or should) a poet’s political stance (or what we know of it) influence how we read their work – particularly when we find their political stance objectionable? The 20th century offers numerous examples of poets whose notoriety in this regard came to overshadow their work (some whose opinions were, for many of us, simply wrong-headed and objectionable; others who gave active support to murderous regimes). Should we set their affiliations to one side when considering their work? Do we (and should we) expect ‘more’ from poets (in terms of moral clarity and public engagement) on account of a perceived responsibility to truth in their work?

  • Rob Hindle says:

    Lorca’s case is interesting in relation to this debate. Though he is clearly on the side of the oppressed, the Fascists who killed him in the early weeks of the Spanish Civil War not only brought him and his work to the notice of the wider world; it also ascribed to him a political affiliation for which there is little clear evidence.

  • Matt says:

    You might equally ask ‘how can a poet’s politics not influence their work?’

    How can their gender, their class or race not influence it?

    Even in a lyric poem, every inclusion or omission has some political nuance, surely.

    Isn’t the idea that poetry should be apolitical just a liberal/conservative idea. If you can speak or publish at all, then isn’t that down to politics.

    Perhaps the question might be ‘how can we write good political poems, rather than bad (or complacent) ones…’

  • Rob Hindle says:

    I agree. My own response to this question, as suggested above, is firstly that good political poems are those that bear witness rather than attempt to ‘deal with’ an issue (while at the same time presenting a personal truth – which, as you imply, Matt, is a moral / political stance); secondly, that the act of creating poetry is necessarily subversive, moving as it does against the nap – even when it is following channels and markers already laid down.

  • Matt says:

    I like that phrase ‘moving againt the map’.

    I’ve always enjoyed this one of Lawrence’s too:

    ‘Man fixes some wonderful erection of his own between himself and the wild chaos, and gradually goes bleached and stifled under his parasol. Then comes a poet, enemy of convention, and makes a slit in the umbrella; and lo! The glimpse of chaos is a vision, a window to the sun.’ D.H. Lawrence

    I guess that umbrella is often a dominant political outlook.

  • Rob Hindle says:

    It was ‘nap’ – though moving against the map is probably a more subtle concept.

    Thanks for the quote: salutary!

  • Chris Jones says:

    I’ve always enjoyed reading Red Sky at Night: Socialist Poetry (edited by Mitchell and Croft) in all its uneven splendour. It would be interesting reading a contemporary right-wing anthology as a kind of mirror – to see who would be included – though I could have a stab at a few names. Some anthologies – just through their conservatism and complacency – might qualify anyway.

    I really enjoyed the Lawrence quotation.

    I think the best poetry comes out of political and social contestation. The poetry of Irish experience over the past fifty years is a case in point. Poetry concerned with the margins – the Scottish poet Douglas Dunn in his pomp (e.g. St Kilda’s Parliament). And of course Ken Smith – the whole of Ken Smith’s work.

    • Rob Hindle says:

      Yes – though that ‘contestation’ might be less direct or overt in some Irish poets than others. (Easy for me to say, probably. Even dissidents like William Blake moved onto the safer ground of wilful obscurity after 1793…)

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