The Flat Ephemeral Pamphlet

I was driving home a while back and listening to NPR. They were featuring the work of a Mexican woman poet (the name escapes me). A voice read one of her long poems that impressionistically leapt from one scene of oppression to another. Valiant campesinos were being slaughtered by hired thugs from the hacienda, the US military was testing missiles on sacred burial grounds; on and on it went. The language was occasionally beautiful, sprinkled with unexpected turns of phrase, a striking image.

And yet, for some reason, I bristled at it. Why? Was it because the poem was so overtly political? And what’s wrong with that? Why can’t a poem be political? Heaven knows, there are whole critical schools of thought that argue even poems that avoid politics are political. I’ve decried that tautological reasoning elsewhere, but--still--why is it that I want poetry to stand at odds with politics? My standard reply is that poetry makes poor politics. Auden, it seems to me, made this point best in his “New Year’s Letter”:
Language may be useless, for
No words men write can stop the war
Or measure up to the relief
Of its immeasurable grief.
And Auden knew whereof he spoke. He took a spin as a political poet and even travelled to Spain to support the loyalists against Franco (a trip that became almost a fad for left-wing writers of the 1930s). In lines he came to regret he urged his readers to set aside "the bicycle races" for the "boring meeting and the flat ephemeral pamphlet." Later he realized that fascists were better fought with guns than words; and injustice better fought with action, not well-crafted rhyme. Indeed, what attracts me to poetry is its very uselessness. In a world whose paradigm demands a ruthless functionality, poetry seems oddly out of step.

One wants to avoid making any special claims for poetry, not even that it preserves a sanctified individualism, the still small voice. There is no refuge from politics. It washes the food we eat, determines who prospers and who starves. And a person with any conscience at all should not make grandiose claims for verse. About all we can say is that poetry reminds us from time to time that politics is not everything. Were justice achieved, oppression vanquished and utopia founded, people would still be writing poems.


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