Thursday, November 25, 2010

Can a good poem be political?

Years ago, when I was doing my first degree, we were told that the best critics and literary theorists held that good poetry could not be political. It couldn’t advocate any ideology, couldn’t be Republican or Democratic, socialist or communist. In fact, overall, a poem shouldn’t get too worked up – Wordsworth’s old “recollection in tranquility” bit.

The injunction prompted me to write my own poem, published in what would now be a very old issue of that venerable Barbadian journal, BIM. I remember the words, but the lineation here is probably revised.


good poets

have no tears

they taught me.

Hopes, fears


are all distilled

into a necessary distance.

The poem is

the sweet mouth water

of a slightly-passioned kiss –

no phlegm, and non-infectious.

© Pamela Mordecai 2010

Clearly, I was not persuaded.

Of course, things are now much changed, and we are in a literary world in which we all acknowledge, poets and readers and critics alike, that, as Jamaican poet Edward Baugh puts it, “Every line commits you.” There’s no question about whether testimonial and political poetry belong in the fold.

It’s complicated, though, because we also all agree that good literature, whether it be story or poem or play, has no message. Message is a dreadful word that we avoid. And this is probably what the people who originally put the embargo on political poetry wanted to save us from, messaging in poems and plays and stories as ordered, say, by the Third Reich, or the cultural arm of the Politburo, or the architects of China’s Cultural Revolution.

So, even though every act, thought, statement, presence-or-absence is political, because we live in a polis, a body of citizens, and willy-nilly cannot speak or act outside of that context, when an author writes merely and mostly and pointedly in order just to persuade people to think a particular way, then we are veering away from writing literature and moving towards writing tracts – religious, political, or otherwise.

But there’s a lot of qualifying in that last sentence: “merely and mostly and pointedly;” “in order just to persuade;” “veering away”. That careful treading is a far cry from the earlier bald proscription: "Good poetry can’t be political."

Plain and simple can be good and helpful, but that absolute is difficult to defend, because surely all literature intends to persuade the reader in some way? Even when writers adopt a naturalistic, slice-of-life approach, the very act of choosing this scene to expose in its ordinary, actual aspect, rather than that one, involves a choice, based on a value, that embodies a point of view. Assuming that the scene has an impact and that it hits the reader as it ought, then that POV will get across.

And aren’t ideology and politics just heightened points of view?

So might it be a matter of degree? In other words, how hard the writer is working his words in his bid to haul the reader over to thinking as he does?

There may be a way out of this, which has to do less with whether the work presents an ideological, religious or other position, less with how hard the writer is working at co-opting us, and more with whether the work invites the reader into a larger or narrower arena, constricts or expands her response. Does the work engage the reader’s imagination? If it sets that maverick faculty in motion, then it is an artistic creation. If it doesn’t, then it’s a dud.

All literature, all art, is the actual transformed into the imagined. It is that transformation that makes the new creation. And the artist’s imaginings, knit into the created thing, summon the imagination of the respondent, so that the act of appreciation is unfettered, complex, multifarious, wild. That is the still point of art’s turning world. The tract, the catechism, the tablets of the law say “Thou shalt” and “Thou shalt not”. But the story or the poem says, “Get on the back of my bike, or climb on my shoulder, or hold my hand, and come with me down this road. Look at the colours of these flowers. Look at those shifting blades of grass. See that worm. Or is it a snake? Look at that man with an axe in his hand! See what I see, but not as I see. See what I see, but see it as you see!”

So one can write political poetry, and indeed, poetry of the kind that wants to rouse real people to real concern and real action about real situations because even when he summons his readers to overthrow a tyrant, the poet has no message except wonder, and his call to action is a summons to our hearts and our senses and our faculty of whimsy. It's an appeal to our imaginative and not our conative faculty.Of course, the one can serve as a powerful prompt to the other!

I've written a couple of political poems myself. I'm thinking of "Protest Poem" and "Last Lines," in my first collection, Journey Poem, both overtly political. Many, many years after it was published, I received a letter from someone in West Africa who said how important it had been for him to come across "Protest Poem," how much it had meant to him in the trying political times in his country.

I leave you with "Last Lines". More soon.

This is the last line I draw.

Alright. Draw the last line.

But I tell you, yonder

is a next. No line ever last,

no death not forever.

You see this place? You see it?

All of it? Watch it good.

Not a jot nor a tittle

going last. Every old

twist-up man you see,

every hang-breast woman,

every bang-belly pickney,

every young warrior

with a head wrench

with weed, white powder,

black powder, or indeed

the very vile persuasion

of the devil – for him not

bedridden you know –

every small gal-turn-woman

that you crucify on the

cross of your sex

before her little naseberry

start sweeten,

I swear to you

every last one shall live.

Draw therefore, O governor,

prime minister, parson,

teacher, shopkeeper,

politician, lecturer,

resounding revolutionaries,

draw carefully

that last fine line

of your responsibility.

from Journey Poem (Kingston, Jamaica: Sandberry Press), 1989, p. 53

© Pamela Mordecai 1989

4 comments: said...

Greetings, Pam!
Glad that you are back in this part of my/our life....everything that we do can be interpreted as political...i was once asked about one of my short stories based on Bob's song..."do You think we should disturb our neighbors" and I said, "yes, if'its to tell him, get your foot off my neck!"...For some people even to say that is a transgression...some of us prefer to continue with the foot on our neck and I undertsand the sentiment...I live with it.. because the man with his foot on your neck can do tearable things to you and your own...

clarabella said...

Hi Geoff: Well, here I am making a stab at it again. Thanks for coming by and for the welcome. I entirely get what you are saying as well. I recall a staff meeting when I was in the faculty of Ed at UWI. Errol Miller (as HOD) was taking the meeting, and he'd said something to me, and I said to him, quite politely, that I thought that, had I been a man, he'd not have made the comments, i.e., they were sexist. I don't remember exactly what my words were, but that was the gist. Someone, a woman and a friend, told me afterwords she thought I had behaved very badly. So yes, some of us are content to let the foot rest upon our necks. Clearly, I was out of order for "disturbing my neighbour," the prof, by telling him what I did. However, it is indeed only too true that the man (or woman) with their foot on your neck can do terrible things. Still, the older one gets, and the nearer to death, the less one fears the foot. What is a foot after all, when your whole body is about to begone? Except of course that it is an ALIEN and MALEVOLENT foot, and not your own. Wherefore you are reminding me I need to fast and pray against bad mind people with down-pressing feet! One love. Stay your good self! said...

Pray, fast, and create art like "Small Axe"....or like Mervyn says, "some pople want be blow it straight, but straight is not my way."
We cannot help but be subversive...we are from the Caribbean...a crossroads culture... the land of Legba.. we see things four ways and then choose a path

clarabella said...

Nalo talks about 'writing it slant.' I also like Henry Louis Gates's description of black people's use of words – 'rhetorical acts', he calls them. And I know you know that, the way we use language, it may look like one path, but it have at least three other ones under it, so we can run way when we ready, and wheel and come again!