On Political Poetry

Ron Cobb cartoon from the sixties



Two Heads, Two Hearts


Speaking for many of his generation in Europe, Polish ‘political’ and yet ‘minimalist’ and ‘anti-poet’ Tadeusz Różewicz (b. 1921) once remarked that his situation from the European post-apocalyptic devastations of ‘year zero’ 1945 onwards had been one of having a constant internal dialogue between ‘two heads’ or ‘two hearts’. One head/heart belonged to the writer/poet, the other counselled him to not bother writing in this time which had ‘no parallel in history’ and to ‘throw everything away’, to not ‘play at literature’ as a mere littérateur: ‘on the one hand the history of art, on the other, everything’s shit.’[1] And, speaking for a whole generation after Auschwitz and Hiroshima, he stated:

I cannot understand that poetry should survive when the men who created that poetry are dead. One of the premises and incentives for my poetry is a disgust with poetry. What I revolted against was that it had survived the end of the world, as though nothing had happened. [2]

Bertolt Brecht (1891-1956) famously summed up his earlier generation’s very similar internal conflict in his ‘Bad Time For Poetry’, the tension in the poem’s final image not between history/politics and art but between history/politics and nature: 


In my poetry a rhyme

Would seem to me almost insolent.

Inside me contend

Delight at the apple tree in blossom

And horror at the house-painter’s speeches.

But only the second

Drives me to the desk.[3]


Even after the end of modernism’s high watermark and the totalitarian ‘Age Of Extremes’ (Eric Hobsbawm) of Rozewicz’ and Brecht’s generations, who would not have felt such an internal tension between the need for poetry and the need for social, ecological or political engagement? It would seem that this tension may be (temporarily?) resolved in various ways. One may stop writing poetry at all like Rimbaud or as Frankfurt School philosopher T.W. Adorno notoriously counselled vis-à-vis the death of western civilisation, culture and language in Auschwitz (‘Nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben ist barbarisch’: ‘to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric’). One may withdraw and concentrate all the harder on oneself, on immediate experience, language and the never-ending process of absorption in perfecting one’s poetic craft. Or one may attempt to bring together ‘poetry’ and ‘engagement’ and write ‘political poetry’. (Or one may oscillate between all of the above.)


A Pox on Both Your Houses


Am I alone in having on occasion experienced a double distaste, namely with regard to both ‘engaged’, or ‘political’, and ‘disengaged’ poetry? Unsuccessful versions of the former, which include many earlier poems of my own, have inevitably recalled German expressionist poet Gottfried Benn’s dictum of ‘art being the opposite of the well-intentioned’ (Kunst ist das Gegenteil von gut gemeint). They have inevitably fallen victim to all the usual political temptations of simple-minded obviousness and cliché, preaching to the saved, lack of formal grace, tension, contradiction, surprise, metaphorical expansion or density etc.

At the same time, who has not – in a world of imperial torture and terrors, post-liberal slides to friendly fascisms and police states, structurally imposed hunger, industrial ecocide – at times sympathised with ‘political poet’ Denise Levertov’s disgust with the disengaged narcissism of so much contemporary poetry, the ‘cherished worms’ of ‘dispassion’, the ‘pallid ironies’, the ‘jovial, murderous,/wry-humoured balanced judgement’ and equally wished to bid it adieu?

 Genial poets, pink-faced

         earnest wits –

         you have given the world

         some choice morsels,

         gobbets of language presented

         as one presents T-bone steak

         and Cherries Jubilee.

         Goodbye, goodbye,

                       I don’t care

         if I never taste your fine food again,

         neutral fellows, seers of every side.

         Tolerance, what crimes

         are committed in your name.[4]

Such divisions would at times seem set in concrete. One important theme of modern literary and critical discourse since around the mid-nineteenth century has been the supposed duality and strict division between ‘engaged’ or ‘political’ literature/poetry (poésie engagée) and ‘pure’ literature/poetry (poésie pure). This duality echoes its way through often related polarities such as ‘realism’ versus ‘symbolism’, ‘content-orientation’ versus ‘formalism’, ‘popular’ versus ‘avant-garde’, ‘agitprop’ versus ‘ivory tower’, Leavisite and Marxist criticism versus New Criticism/Structuralism. To a degree it may even be present in possible current tensions between the written and spoken word/performance poetry. However, as German ‘engaged’ poet H.M. Enzensberger already remarked in the early sixties, this opposition has not done poetry itself any service: arguments between the two camps often seem like the pointless pursuits of two caged mice on a treadmill.[5] How can this unproductive polarisation be overcome?


Is ‘Political Poetry’ An Oxymoron?

One way to start chipping away at this rigid polarisation might be by asking an obvious question: is not the very term ‘political poetry’ something of an oxymoron? My answer would be: well, yes and no.

Yes: poetry and ‘politics’ in the usual narrow sense of parliaments, parties and propaganda are just as mutually exclusive as are music or art and propaganda. A. Alvarez sums up the familiar case:

The problem is not that the twain can never meet but that they can do so only at a great cost. The complexity, tension and precision of modern poetry simply doesn’t [sic] go with the language of politics, with its vague rhetoric and dependence on clichés. [This argument] amounts to the belief that political poetry as poetry, must be relatively but debilitatingly simple-minded. This means that, although it may on occasion be effective, it can’t be defined as ‘good’, since our criteria of excellence are defined by qualities more inturned and subtly discriminating than politics leaves room for. [6]

For examples, one need look no further than to the painful homilies and infamous clichés of both political right and left, of fascist or socialist realism: Stackhonovite hero meets tractor, the Great Leader explaining the Five Year Plan to a rapt peasant family in their lowly, but recently electrified hut…. Those days are of course now almost ancient history, yet, closer to home, even great contemporary poets like Les Murray or Ted Hughes may at times lapse into political propaganda of the most primitive kind.

Murray’s Hansonite Darville-Demidenko doggerel, for example, predictable chip firmly planted on ‘redneck’ shoulder, dares to first patronisingly allow the reader a certain amount of grief over the Holocaust in order to then nicely ‘balance out’ the latter with the Gulag Terror and make the notorious poseur Darville-Demidenko (of The Hand That Wrote The Letter fame) a heroic martyr-victim of those hegemonial chardonnay-Bolshie elites and their wretched multiculturalism:

         The Six Million are worth full grief:

         it isn’t enough to be stunned –

         but showing up your elders’ multiculture

         so easily is what got you shunned…[7].

This seems almost as bad as the late poet laureate Ted Hughes’ embarrassing basilikos logos pap regarding the British royal wedding.

In contrast, however, ‘higher’ forms of propaganda, or at least ‘didacticism’, may obviously even be great poetry. Dante’s Inferno and Milton’s Paradise Lost are  Christian theodicies ‘justifying the ways of God to man’, and thus ‘political’ in that sense.  In a more mystic vein, T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, a personal favourite of mine, may also be possibly read as such. The powerful anti-war poems of Sassoon and Owen have become schoolroom classics of their genre. The political thirties produced not only the Stalinist doggerel and abysmal agitprop of Soviet poets and Communist fellow-travellers but also possibly enduring political poetry by Lorca, Neruda, Brecht, Dylan Thomas, Auden and MacNeice (e.g. Autumn Journal). In the fifties, sixties and later Yehuda Amichai, Miroslav Holub, Vasko Popa, Tadeusz Różewicz, Denise Levertov, Adrienne Rich, Adrian Mitchell, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, H.M. Enzensberger, Zbigniew Herbert, even Beat poets like Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg’s Howl may spring to mind. In the seventies and eighties feminism’s ‘personal-as-political’ stance generated much memorable poetry by woman poets that re-defined the poetics of gender, creatively blurring and transcending the tired old ‘private’ and ‘engaged’ compartments of poetic genre.[8]

The Politics of Poetry as an Alternative Epistemology

Thus even the term ‘political poetry’ in the overt, explicitly engaged sense, need not be an oxymoron. Beyond that, it may depend a lot on how you define ‘politics’. Defined widely enough, ‘politics’ can also refer to a whole way of life and correlative way of seeing based on usually tacit understandings of what constitute public and private concerns, ‘power’, ‘value’ and ‘meaning’. In that sense poetry and politics are not only very compatible, rather one could argue that ‘political poetry’ is not only not an oxymoron but perhaps indeed something of a pleonasm.

This is especially so from the perspective of the radical aesthetic tradition of the western avant-garde. In contrast to content-oriented, politically engaged, populist and predominantly realist schools of aesthetic thought, the post-romantic tradition of aesthetics – and its radical heirs in French surrealism and Frankfurt School theorists like T.W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin and Herbert Marcuse – posits art and poetry as INHERENTLY subversive, not as specific ‘political’ content but qua the form of art/poetry itself.

In this view, a Rimbaud, Rilke, Celan, Eliot, Joyce or Beckett, for example, are perhaps more subversive than much of the poetry that explicitly sees itself as ‘politically engaged’. Seen dialectically, the often disengaged symbolism and apparent hermeticism of l’art pour l’art can in fact contain radical implications of fundamental dissent. ‘The most ethereally suspended text by Arp or Eluard is already poésie engagée by the mere fact of it being poetry: opposition to, not confirmation of business as usual.’[9] In the same way, a Francis Bacon or Mark Rothko painting may be more ‘engaged art’ than a revolutionary poster, or Bob Dylan’s Desolation Row, Like A Rolling Stone or All Along The Watchtower more poésie engagée than his overtly political Blowin’ In The Wind. How is this at first sight perhaps implausible proposition to be understood? 

In this radical tradition, poetry and aesthetic form is conceived as an alternative way of seeing, or anti-epistemology, to that of bourgeois society. In contrast to both popular and engaged poetry, avant-garde modernist poetry in the post-romantic, symbolist tradition has, from its beginnings, attempted to withdraw the poem from the logic of the market and make the poem the ‘absolute anti-commodity’.[10]  In this view, ‘true’ poetry refuses to be instrumentalised or to pander to anything extraneous to itself, i.e. to any expectation, power, cause or ‘market’, economic or political. In H.M. Enzensberger’s view:

The poem’s political mission is to reject any political mission and to speak for all even there where it speaks of no one, speaks of a tree, a stone, of that which is not. This mission is the most difficult. None is easier to forget. No one is there to demand accountability; quite the contrary: they who betray it in the interest of those in power are rewarded. [11]

According to the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School, the prevalent epistemology of bourgeois society – from science to everyday consciousness – is quite the opposite. It is defined by the commodity and its pragmatic, utilitarian ‘instrumental reason’. Everything is viewed from the implicit (capitalist) perspective of ‘usefulness’ and social or tradable ‘value’ as narrowly defined by market society.

Since its modern origins in seventeenth century rationalism and scientific empiricism, this predominant form of reason has also been inherently and necessarily dissociative. Like the commodity’s split between its use value and exchange or market value, instrumental reason splits everything into observing or manipulating subjects (Descartes’ res cogitans or ‘thinking things’) and dead objects (Descartes’ res extensa or ‘extended things’). These splits and their many correlates – mind and body, male and female, man and nature etc – are usually hierarchically arranged, with the former supposedly having power over the latter. Under the notorious patriarchal premises of Baconian, Cartesian and Newtonian science and technology, nature is a woman to be phallically ‘known’ by the power of conquest, fragmentation, dissection, reduction. Instrumental reason thus looks at things and people from the viewpoint of ‘power-over’, i.e. from the outside, at a distance and as manipulable for some, extrinsic, ulterior purpose.

Towards that end, language itself becomes just another pragmatic, manipulative tool in its technological box: it is mainly there as either a series of prosaic ‘speech acts’ to maximise ‘persuasion’ or ‘communication’, to ‘process information’, to ‘get things done’ in the ‘real world’ or else as the slick pseudo-poetry of advertising and PR to sell a message and/or commodity. Means and ends, form and content are as separated, isolated and reified as ‘sender’ and ‘receiver’, ‘seller’ and buyer’, ‘signifier’ and ‘signified’, ‘medium’ and ‘message’.

Modern poetry, art and music work within a very different epistemology. Whatever their content or subject matter, they are necessarily concerned with their own formal features and materials, whether as traditional continuation, exploration, development, subversion or abandonment, and are ‘useless’ in any immediate practical sense. The stereotypical philistine is quite right in asking what the ‘message’ or what ‘the good’ of all this avant-garde cultural stuff is supposed to be. The answer is of course: no ‘good’ or ‘message’ at all.

Poetry and the arts eschew the exclusively extrinsic, distanced, objectivist viewpoint of science, media and the everyday, working, in the main, ‘intrinsically’ or ‘from the inside out’. Poetry knows no simple linear causalities or the simple ‘messages’ of ‘facts’ or ‘information’. Even when dissonant, despairing or ‘dark’, perhaps especially then, art, music and poetry can be experienced as healing of personal and social dissociations. Their ‘use’ thus lies in their very uselessness as market commodities. As ‘useless’ as love, clouds, moonlight or the proverbial red wheelbarrow in the rain. In that wider sense, they are inherently subversive of instrumental reason and the increasingly totalitarian logic of the market, and thus eminently ‘political’.  

Another World is Possible: Poetry as Inherently Utopian

This alternative epistemology inherent in poetry, art and music thus also, and  necessarily, contains an ‘utopian’ element, and one working ‘politically’ in both temporal directions, backwards and forwards. On the one hand, in its forms, rhythms and metaphors, poetry harks backwards to the very origins of human consciousness, to a pre-bourgeois time before the instrumental reason of money and markets ruled general consciousness. It harks back even further to a pre-rational ‘dreamtime’ of myths, animism, shamanism. It harks back to a both personal and collective ‘pre-egoic’ (Ken Wilber) time of ‘body-mind’ before the development of differentiated egos, intellects and abstract thought.

In all modern art forms, the intellect and its self-reflexivity – as Hegel may have been one of the first to realise two hundred years ago – have been increasingly and necessarily added to the original holistic mind-body mix. However, I would argue, without some level of basic grounding in our pre-rational origins, these aesthetic forms are always in danger of losing all vitality, movement and ‘oomph’. For personal and aesthetic wholeness or integrity, the human neo-cortex, the intellect or consciousness,  would seem to need to communicate freely with, and be transparent toward, the mammalian limbic and reptilian base stem parts of the brain, or ‘the unconscious’, ‘on top’ of which it sits.[12]

On the other hand, it is one of the many paradoxes of the arts that in their very ‘conservatism’ also lies their revolutionary potential. It is precisely in conserving a memory, however distant, of pre-bourgeois and pre-egoic origins, of this alternative epistemology, that they at the same time conserve a promise of a utopian, post-bourgeois future. For Stendhal and Nietzsche, all beauty embodied ‘une promesse de bonheur’; for Marxist and mystic philosopher Ernst Bloch, art and beauty communicate a ‘premonition of future freedom’. For H.M. Enzensberger, poetry is both anticipation and critique: it passes on the future and reminds us of the self-evident which remains historically unrealised and of which we have been socially deprived:[13]

Francis Ponge has remarked: his poems are written as if on the day after the successful revolution. That is the case for all poetry. Poetry is anticipation, if need be as doubt, refusal, negation. Not that it speaks of the future, but rather as if a future were possible, as if the unfree could speak freely, as if there were not alienation and speechlessness (since speechlessness cannot speak itself, alienation cannot communicate). Such anticipating would become a lie if it were not at the same time critique; such critique would be powerless were it not in the same breath anticipation.[14]

The complex beauties of poetry, music, art can serve to remind the attentive audience or immersed reader that, as the politics of the contemporary alternative globalisation movement would have it, ‘another world is possible’. The separations, alienations and reifications of market society and the egoic power-over principle can be overcome. The instrumental reason that characterises the obsessive-compulsive drivenness of capitalist technology, innovation, growth, productivity and zeitgeist can be transcended. In Marcuse’s view, poetry and art are a form of cultural ‘permanent revolution’, a struggle

against reification by giving voice to frozen humans and things – by letting them sing, perhaps   dance…This permanent revolution does not seek ever better productivity, ever more exertion, ever more efficient exploitation of nature. This revolution seeks the cessation of the will to power, pacification in the enjoyment of what is, the abolition of inhuman labour, the beauty of the life-world.[15]

This kind of sensibility characterised much of the cultural and counter-cultural avant-garde in Europe and the US during the sixties and early seventies, symbolically perhaps culminating in the poetic and social ‘utopian’ events of Paris in May 1968.  (These events not accidentally so heavily influenced by the radical ex-artists of the  Situationist movement).

According to this kind of post-romantic and critical dialectical thought, this transcending of the bourgeois ‘will to power’ that permeates our industrial market societies would, however, not be a reactionary, romantic regression to the pre-bourgeois, pre-modern and pre-egoic. That way may lie the even worse ‘will to power’ that is some atavistic form of fascism. Rather, this transcending would rather take the form of a forward movement to the post-bourgeois, post-modern and post-egoic that dialectically integrates both modern and pre-modern.  Both psyches and society could then be structured like the ‘free order’ or non-violent, holistic ‘anarchy’ that characterises the great poem, piece of music or work of art or, indeed, natural ecosystems: the whole that is not an enforced pseudo-unity from above (as in totalitarianism) but that is itself nothing but the free, unimpeded, democratic inter-communication of the parts. This is the utopian ‘politics’ inherent both in the successful poem or work of art and in the poetic, musical and artistic way of seeing and responding to the world and self.

Utopia is bread and roses for all. From this perspective, the alternative ‘politics’ inherent in poetic form can become a reality informing a culture and society. Meanwhile, however:

It is difficult

to get the news from poems

yet men die miserably every day

for lack

of what is found there.

          – William Carlos Williams (Asphodel, that Greeny Flower)

[First published in a shorter version in the Sydney Poets Union’s five bells, Spring 2007, pp.23-27.]

[1] In: D. Weissbort (ed.), The Poetry Of Survival. Post-War Poets of Central and Eastern Europe (London: Penguin Books, 1991), pp. 349-350.

[2] In: M. Hamburger, The Truth Of Poetry (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972), pp. 273-274.

[3] D. Weissbort, op.cit., p. 31. The ‘house-painter’  is Adolf Hitler.

[4] Denise Levertov, Goodbye to Tolerance, in the freeing of the dust (New York: New Directions Books, 1975), p. 39.

[5] H.M. Enzensberger, ‘Weltsprache der modernen Poesie’, in Einzelheiten II – Poesie und Politik (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1976), p. 23.

[6] A. Alvarez, Introduction to the poetry of Zbigniew Herbert, in Zbigniew Herbert, Selected Poems (Penguin Modern European Poets, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1968), p. 9.

[7] Les Murray, ‘For Helen Darville’ in Subhuman Redneck Poems (Potts Point: Duffy & Snellgrove, 1996), p. 95. Murray’s poem in the same volume ‘A Stage in Gentrification’ (p. 65) continues the predictable hate polemics against the chardonnay Bolshie ‘elites’ whose Commie cultural bag is deemed to include a psychologically interesting mix of Murraysian obsessions: ‘sex’, ‘media careers’, ‘the Australian republic’, ‘recruited depression’, ‘scorn of God’ ‘self-abasement studies’ and ‘funding’s addictive smelling-rag.’ In a daringly ludicrous moral equation, the cultural ‘atmosphere’ of ‘nag and bully’ apparently set by this Bolshie elite in Australia is even identified with the same spirit that propelled Stalin’s police to murder ‘eighty million’. Murray seems to have a bad time with funding bodies. ‘The Beneficiaries’ (p. 27) even finds it odd that ‘Western intellectuals’ (a social category to which Murray obviously does not see himself as belonging) ‘never praise Auschwitz’ since ‘they claim it’s what finally/won them their centuries-/long war against God.’ Despite having patronisingly assured us that the Six Million are ‘worth full grief’, Murray obviously finds nothing wrong with playing petty point scoring games with the highly charged term ‘Auschwitz’ and the victims of the Holocaust.

[8] A fine example is the anthology:  Marge Piercy (ed.), Early Ripening. American Women’s Poetry Now. London: Pandora Press, 1987.

[9] Enzensberger, op.cit., p. 24. (I have translated Enzenberger’s Bestehende as ‘business as usual’. It literally means ‘the existing’ or ‘things as they are’.) Enzensberger adds that the pre-modern classics are ‘au fond no less obnoxious than modern authors. Their poetry is also dissent. But this obnoxiousness must not be admitted.’ (p. 25)

[10] Ibid., p. 23.

[11] H.M. Enzensberger, Poesie und Politik in Einzelheiten II, op.cit., p. 136 (own translation, P.L-N.)

[12] J.C. Pearce sums up MacLean’s theory of the ‘triune brain’ in Evolution’s End (New York: Harper San Francisco), pp. 42-51.

[13] Enzensberger, op.cit., p. 25.

[14] Enzensberger, op.cit., p. 136 (own translation, P.L-N.)

[15] In: C. L. Nibbrig (ed.), Ästhetik. Materialien zu ihrer Geschichte (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1978) p. 238. (own translation, P.L-N.

Robert Crumb, 2009



~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on May 11, 2010.

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