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Summer 2009 - BOOK REVIEW by Gregg Mosson
Ars Poetica: A Case for American Political Poetry

Why should poets address political issues, ask some critics with arched disapproving eyebrows, and then often they answer that politics its too timely a subject for quality poetry. Question and the answer miss the point. First of all, any subject matter is timely in poetry. Robert Frost’s classic second book North of Boston is almost entirely comprised of narrative dialogues of people right in the middle of things, and yet the poetry he crafted with it will remain relevant as long as the English language does. The poet in the classic sense always faces the technical difficulty of making life at hand relevant to the teeming generations. The question is much more interesting if reversed: Why should poets exclude political and social issues from their poetry?

If poetry is “a statement in words about an experience,” to use critic Yvors Winters’ definition in The Function of Criticism; then why should the political aspects of “experience” be excluded from poetry? Helen Vendler in her book Poets Thinking sees “poets as people who are always thinking, who create texts that embody elaborate and finely precise (and essentially unending) meditation.” While 20th century history shows many examples of totalitarian governments oppressing artists who dare to address state matters in their work, why should poets on their own narrow their thinking to the nooks and crannies of just personal space (as if personal space can be so cut off from other people and the social and natural worlds). Lastly, if poetry is “the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds,” as the romantic poet Shelly says in A Defense of Poetry; then do these moments automatically exclude everything political and social for every poet? In 19th century American verse, one finds a poet as solitary as Emily Dickinson, and of course a poet as socially gregarious Walt Whitman. While these

While 20th century history shows many examples of totalitarian governments oppressing artists who dare to address state matters in their work, why should poets on their own narrow their thinking to the nooks and crannies of just personal space ...
poets have different emphasis, both poets span the spectrum of the personal, social, and political. The most accurate portraits of human life always will touch on the social and the political, because people live in social and political milieus. In the reverse sense, looking at a mid-20th century political poem like Allen Ginsberg’s “America,” Ginsberg decries the war and poverty of the 1950s, which remain timely in the first decade of the 21st century, despite their “timeliness.” Ginsberg’s poem asks in modern language, “Am I my brother’s keeper” when he says in the opening lines, “When will we end the human war?” At the same time, the poem is a personal portrait of a man harried by the social milieu he cannot accept.

Emily Dickinson is one of the most solitary poets in American letters. When she writes that “There is no frigate like a book” or “The Soul selects her own Society,” she is writing with huge reverberations that come from what Ezra Pound called the only morality of writing, honesty. The ars poetica of political poetry comes out of the wider imperatives of poetry itself. It does not to say poets should reproduce a doctrine. However if a poet’s honest conclusions offer a doctrine, an honest poet will have the courage to offer it, or they would be better off writing advertising copy, where hemming and hawing is standard. The ars poetica of political poetry says poets must reckon with life, and these political poets like Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg assert that life includes the economic, political, and social customs of the day. They are alive to it, wrestling it. Emily Dickinson writes in poem 435:

Much madness is divinest Sense—
To a discerning Eye—
Much sense—the starkest Madness—
‘Tis the Majority
In this, as All, prevail—
Assent—and you are sane—
Demur—you’re straightaway dangerous—
And handled with a Chain—

American poetry of the last three decades—from 1980 to 2008—has tended to take the romantic individualism of Emily Dickinson or John Keats and narrow it down from the “experience” that those poets turned inward to explore. Why this has happened is a good question. I hope another essayist takes up, for I will not dwell on here, except to say that a definition of the individual who cannot think beyond their own personal desires and spaces conveniently fits the American consumer culture that has been in ascendance since 1980. This consumerism (as with any product) does not produce experience, thinking, or moments with the depth and range to make interesting literature. On one hand, this consumer individualism exists in contrast to the wider responsibilities of citizenship offered by the U.S. Constitution. On the other hand, this narrowed individualism exists in contrast to the capacious humanity of poets from the past and many from the present.

This essay is about the ars poetica of political poetry, why political poetry should be written. The simplest answer is that poetry must include the full experience of living; it cannot be the polite dinner-party conversation among strangers, or gossip over watermelons at the supermarket, though Stephen Dunn’s poem “At the Restaurant” and Allen Ginsberg’s “At a Supermarket in California” made poetry out of those things. Poetry cannot be the restricted lens of the professional workplace. Poetry cannot not be a frozen sea of expected rhetorical exchange; as Franz Kafka wrote of literature, it must be the breaking up of that frozen sea within into the emotions and thoughts of life. Poetry must be honest reckoning.

This essay is about the ars poetica of political poetry, why political poetry should be written. The simplest answer is that poetry must include the full experience of living; it cannot be the polite dinner-party conversation among strangers, or gossip over watermelons at the supermarket ...

American poetry comes out of the birth of a nation in progress, and American political poetry can be seen as tackling the choices to be. In the 19th century, Longfellow’s famous and popular “Paul Revere’s Ride” puts war, revolution, and freedom at the center of a poetic narrative. Walt Whitman’s groundbreaking 1855 Leaves of Grass includes almost every conceivable aspect of society as part of its poetic range, from sex, to harboring a runaway slave, to loafing in a field of grass, to singing of the equality of women and especially mothers. That this book’s opening became titled “Song of Myself” only reminds us how much a person can hold in his or her arms. When Whitman first published Leaves of Grass in 1855, women could not vote in America and African-Americans were enslaved in the South. Whitman did not fret that some would reject his book because he opposed this. Rather, he roots his declarations in the ideals of U.S. Declaration of Independence “that all men are created equal.” Whitman says, using the language of science, “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” Likewise the congress of people in Whitman’s “Song of Myself” mirrors U.S. House of Representatives, where dialogue through difference achieves union. The poet Mark Doty in his essay “Form, Eros, and the Unspeakable: Whitman’s Stanzas” notes that Whitman found the tepid reception that greeted his great poetic work disappointing, and expressed it in the poem “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life.” That Whitman’s document did not change society immediately may show the concrete limits of political poetry, but also highlight its invisible and ethereal workings. As biographer Jerome Loving details in Walt Whitman: Song of Himself, Whitman’s poetry did embolden some 19th century feminists and progressives; even more importantly, Whitman’s poetry is a valuable part of human heritage, influencing how writers think and write across the world.

Whitman’s ars poetica leads him to be as inclusive as possible in championing democratic goals:

I am the poet of the woman the same as the man
And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man,
And I say there is nothing greater than the mother of men.

Whitman’s ars poetica—the reason he wrote—was “to make a statement in words about an experience.” The experience for Whitman is massive. At one point he says, “I speak the password primeval . . . . I give the sign of democracy.” And so his work, for Whitman, becomes a conduit for himself, his milieu, and for those often left out, in this vision:

Through me many long dumb voices,
Voices of the interminable generations of slaves,
Voices of prostitutes and of deformed persons,
Voices of the diseased and despairing, and of thieves and of dwarfs,
Voices of cycles of preparation and accretion,
And of the threads that connect the stars—and of the wombs, and of the
And of the rights of them the others are down upon,
Of the trivial and flat and foolish and despaired,
Of fog in the air and beetles rolling balls of dung.

Of American poets, Carl Sandburg’s first book Chicago Poems published in 1916 most fully continues Whitman’s capacious ars poetica vision, especially in the sense of championing “the rights of them the others are down upon.” Technically speaking, Sandburg’s first book features short imagistic poems of modernism alongside Whitman’s longer, more narrative line. Unlike Whitman’s optimism, Sandburg sees America through a much darker lens. For Sandburg, Chicago life at the beginning of the 20th century is not full of skilled crafts-people one finds in Whitman’s poetry. Sandburg’s Chicago is a portrait of disposable workers, prostitutes, bar hounds, and criminals living in an industrial wasteland. This is a world that Detroit-born poet Philip Levine continues exploring in the second half of the 20th century in books like They Feed They Lion, What Work Is and A Walk With Tom Jefferson. Carl Sandburg in 1916 does not “connect the stars—and of the wombs, and of the fatherstuff” to what he sees, like Whitman. Rather, Sandburg in his famous poem “Chicago” records a laughter despite the city’s vice-grip, celebrates a brute force of human vibrancy in this “city of big shoulders.”

Langston Hughes, writing in Harlem around the same time, brought jazz and modern African-American experience into poetry to create new rhythmic forms in English verse. Reading Hughes’ poetry and stories, one is struck how much insight Hughes has into people’s motivations, an unflinching insight borne of deep affection. Hughes’ poetry is lyric in its shape, but in subject matter fundamentally it is dramatic, for it displays other people’s hearts, lives, and character. Hughes’ political ars poetica focused on African-American working class people of his time—not in some isolated individuality—but one that touches on all the forces personal and social affecting someone’s life, from personal folly to human rights. Hughes’ skill with both song and character make his portraits universal. From this timely subject, Hughes offers timeless verse, and timeless humor too.

About work, he writes in “Blue Monday,” quoted in full:

No use in my going
Downtown to work today,
It’s eight,
I’m late—
And it’s marked down that-a-way.

Saturday and Sunday’s
Fun to sport around.
But no use denying—
Monday’ll get you down.

That old blue Monday
Will surely get you down.

His insight can be plain-speaking and charming, such as in these:


It’s such a
Being always


When you turn the corner
And you run into yourself
Then you know that you have turned
All the corners that are left.


Here I sit
With my shoes mismatched
I’s frustrated!

This essay is an argument for American poetry to remain in its widest river, to tackle social and political aspects of life when such considerations are necessary, rather than hide from it; to consider life in its fullest aspect, while also delving inward into feelings and thoughts. In an era that seems to reduce people from citizens to consumers, American poetry needs to reassert and re-explore the widest capacities of the human endeavor and experience. Poetry should not forget humanity’s the capacity for self-determination, and ability to think about the world. W.H. Auden in his poem “September 1, 1939” stops at a bar a year or so before the onset of World War II. Auden notes “Waves of anger and fear / Circulate over the bright / And darkened lands of the earth.” Auden in this poem is simply being alive to the times in these words.

Of course, looking at Auden’s oeuvre one sees that his work includes much social thought. In the same poem, Auden finds that behind social and political conflicts are people’s emotional attachment to themselves, lack of empathy for others. He calls this “the error bred in the bone.” Though one might debate Auden’s use of original sin language here, his psychological insight is spot on. We can see lack of empathy as one root of conflict in the process where governments dehumanize an “enemy,” while preparing people for war. Auden writes:

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

The American tradition in the 19th century—its most prominent poets such as Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Lawrence Dunbar—all made their poetic home in this widest stream that considers politics simply part of life, not given over to the professional class. In the beginning of the 20th century, this focus continues in epics of social and humanist commentary in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Ezra Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley”: in Langston Hughes’ Montage of a Dream Deferred; and continues through 20th century poets such as Sylvia Plath, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Bly, Philip Levine, Adrienne Rich, Nikki Giovanni and more. What are some barriers to this kind of work? The first challenge is have to something to say, a daunting challenge that requires much more than a purely technical approach to language, because it requires a writer to think as a citizen and intellectual. The 21st century technical dazzle being trumpeted in American literary journals comes just from the head. It is out of touch with the heart and guts. The technical is more accessible and easy for a writer to do than this deep, earned work.

Two short poems from Louise Simpson’s 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning book The End of the Open Road seem to sum up both the difficult task of contemporary verse dealing with modern polyglot times, and articulate a desire of the human spirit to soar beyond it. In “American Poetry” and “In the Suburbs,” Simpson writes:


Whatever it is, it must have
A stomach that can digest
Rubber, coal, uranium, moons, poems.

Like the shark, it contains a shoe.
It must swim for miles through the desert
Uttering cries that are almost human.


There’s no way out.
You were born to waste your life.
You were born to a middle class life.

As others before you
Were born to walk in procession
To the temple, singing.

The first challenge is have to something to say, a daunting challenge that requires much more than a purely technical approach to language, because it requires a writer to think as a citizen and intellectual.
Simpson’s “American Poetry” offers an interesting ars poetica of what poetry must do to tackle a modern society where cultures, technologies, and nature intermix. The poem argues that modern verse must consider the personal, technological, and natural: “rubber, coal, uranium, moons, poems.” I might add that unlike Simpson’s list, a poet is challenged to make a more totalistic and penetrating order out of all this, to make a “stay against confusion,” to quote Robert Frost’s suggestion. In the second poem, Simpson captures an emotion of longing for idealistic visions, one glimpsed through images of a “procession” and “temple” from ancient times. Since this vision embraces ritual, the poem rejects not the routines of “middle class life,” but the purposelessness of it beyond personal survival often associated with this phrase when used in the pejorative. “In the Suburbs” points to a dissatisfaction with a secular and consumer-driven “middle class life.” Considering that this poem was published in 1960, Simpson here is prescient about the resurgence of religiousness in America in the 21st century. Furthermore, market economics’ exclusion of ethics from all considerations simply will not satisfy this longing, described by Simpson. As people’s gaze looks for a higher power, which in Simpson’s poem really is a search for higher living, each person’s aspiration inevitably looks back to evaluate how they themselves act, from Simpson’s “middle class life” to “singing.”

In 2008, I edited special issue of the journal Poems Against War: Ars Poetica (Wasteland Press), a journal that has an online home at www.poemsagainstwar.com. It brought together a number of contemporary poets who wrote specifically on social and political themes, while also questioning what poetry’s role could be in dilemmas beyond the page. Reginald Harris, a Baltimore poet and member of the Cave Canem workshop, interestingly quotes Kenneth Koch from the poem “The Pleasures of Peace” to answer this question. Koch reminds the reader that a political ars poetica also can turn from politics to preserve humanity. Koch says he called his poem:

Pleasures of Peace because I am not sure they will be lasting! I wanted people to be able to see what these pleasures are That they may come back to them.

Reginald Harris sympathizes with this in his essay, but in the poem he wrote for the journal, Harris recalls an anti-war poetry reading held at the University of Baltimore on February 13, 2003. He writes of the day:

Afterwards, all smiles,
greetings, hugs, plans,
the shared music of Walt

Whitman in our ears, singing
in our souls, translating
drumbeat to heartbeat.

It doesn’t stop, it does
not stop, the insistent
martial clatter, the cold wind
blowing in from the Capital . . .

The “insistent / martial clatter” of war “blowing in from the capital” once again is sweeping across society, and in fact, Harris notes, “does / not stop.” Harris interestingly contrasts the war-sound of clatter to the music of poetry that day, “translating / drumbeat to heartbeat,” as if to highlight the importance of articulated vision in determining what each person does, and what society itself does. The U.S. invaded Iraq about one month after this poetry reading on March 19, 2003, so the “martial clatter” won. However the insight that narrative is at the center of the fulfillment of that narrative through human action keeps the pivot point of the turning world just as much in the hands of poetry. Harris notes this fragility and fulcrum of human agency in the rest of the poem. He concludes:

calculation hiding behind
the mask of inevitability

We do not stop. Together
we bundle up against the weather,
our prayers flickering candles

against the encroaching night,
wrap ourselves in a weave of words
binding us to the other,

holding us together, holding us
to the world. And we don’t
Stop. We do not stop.

Do not

about one month before the March 19, 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Gregg Mosson is the author of a book of nature poetry, Season of Flowers and Dust from Goose River Press, and editor of Poems Against War (Wasteland Press), a journal with national contributors. His commentary and poetry have appeared in The Cincinnati Review, The Baltimore Review, The Baltimore Sun, Loch Raven Review, and The Little Patuxent Review. He has an MA from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, and lives and teaches in Maryland. A new book, Questions of Fire, is forthcoming from Plain View Press in September 2009. For more, seek www.greggmosson.com.


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