Subscriberthon guest post: alicia sometimes on the potential politics of poetry

If you’ve ever been lectured by Ian Syson [in a university theatre or in a bar] about poetry, you’ll know that it is inescapably, ineluctably, indisputably political. alicia sometimes argues much the same here with her characteristic verve and whimsy and we welcome her to the Overland blog as our esteemed guest.

In a week that has seen the NSW Labor party implode and Tony Abbott rise to the giddy heights of opposition leader – despite the mention of his budgie smugglers – I think it is time to reflect on the politics of poetry. Former Governor of New York, Mario Cuomo once remarked, ‘You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.’ This round of Australian political football (foosball?) line-up changes hasn’t come with the oratory grace of refined poetry, but I understand what Governor Cuomo meant.

Carried in the bones of both politics and poetry are the marrow of inspirational language, punchy rhetoric, power, idealism and also personal risk. Both can aspire to bring about social, cultural and political change. Whether they ever do is another thing. Kevin Rudd telling us we should have a strong cup of tea and an Iced Vo Vo before getting down to the nation’s business is not the same as Paul Keating emoting the spiritual depths of justice. Words can have the ability to transport or deflate. Poetry and politics can be very kinky bedfellows.

All poetry is political whether implicitly or explicitly as it is about the self and the human experience. As feminist Carol Hanisch famously said, the personal is political and Australian poet, John Kinsella wrote, ‘poetry is political in self-analysis’. Poetry can get to the spine of things sometimes more poignantly than a declarative statement. So many books are written on this subject. It’s discussed everywhere, but I’m curious, what are your thoughts on The Political Poem?

A political poem is usually thought to be writing that is full of causes, a call to arms, life-changing national events, left-leaning rants, subversive script, stereotypes, pamphlet or zine subculture activism, choppy and broken up soap box laments. Political poems are often believed to be clunky, long-winded, obvious, didactic, preachy and just for the young. Sure, bad poetry is bad. What politics in poetry can be is full of engagement, provocation, elevated speech, humour, subtle metaphor, lush language, investigative freshness and can create presence. They can offer solutions but mostly they just question. Get us thinking.

Politics is etched in the works of the biggies: Homer, Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, Brecht, and also, off the top of my head, the likes of ‘Ern Malley’, Judith Wright, Bruce Dawe, Dorothy Hewett, Coral Hull, John Kinsella, Geoff Goodfellow, Ouyang Yu, Lionel Fogerty and ∏o. These are to name so few that imbue the strength and gumption of political poetry. As Dorothy Porter said of the poetic stories and truths we aim to tell, ‘they sear into the soul and can never be untold’.

A good poem has the ability to change a person and a person can change things. Rolling stones should gather some poets. Poems that have self-awareness and context of community can be illuminating. When poets speak for more than themselves they can arouse. Does silence imply consent?

I’ve always loved this lofty quote from Shelley:

‘Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’ Pretty hard lines to live up to. It’s not just a question for the digital/media age, but were poets ever this powerful?

Adrienne Rich has said, ‘the question for a…poet is how to bear witness to a reality from which the public – and maybe part of the poet – wants, or is persuaded it wants, to turn away.’ The Irish poet Brian Coffey wrote that ‘the political use of words kills the capacity to use words to make poems’. And of course, often quoted is W.B. Yeats’ piece, ‘On Being Asked for a War Poem’: ‘I think it best at times like these/ a poet’s mouth be silent’. Are any of them right?

This August in the Northern Territory, the Independent Member for Nelson, Gerry Wood read a poem in Parliament that began with the line, ‘So what’s the use of pondering if nothing is a fake…’ Not barn burning stuff (and at times contradictory), but poetry in the houses of Australian parliament should be heard more often (although I love hearing words like crap and arseholes as well). He was trying to elevate. There are so many monumentally good pieces that wear the political sleeve. I hope our politicians are reading them.

Taylor Mali performing How to write a political poem

Factoryroad | MySpace Video

Karen Pickering

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  1. I don’t know why there aren’t more ‘political’ poets in Australia. It’s such a rewarding experience.

    You can stand onstage past midnight in (poetry) bars full of people on the tipsy side and say ‘Hey, listen up let’s talk about how racist you might possibly be, or how what your parents may have taught you is effectively genocide endorsement, or maybe we could examine the fact you could have raped your last girlfriend and never even realised it…roll up people, grab another VB we’re gonna be here for quite some time.’

    If you’re really lucky, listeners might even corner you in the carpark after a reading, or email you to ask you what, exactly, your problem is.

    Your potential boss puts your name into a search engine and returns your poems: ‘The Deputy Prime Minister is a Racist Pig’ and ‘White Bred Bun’. Suddenly that income you were planning on getting doesn’t look so rock solid any more.

    The venue where you were going to launch your book decides you are ‘too antagonistic’ and pulls you from their program. The glossy magazine you’ve been freelancing for for some time decides to ‘risk manage’ their contributors.

    Viva Australian political poetry. Why on earth would any poet choose to write laboured, completely inverted self reflections instead?

  2. I agree with Maxine. I have no idea why anyone would want to become any kind of poet in this country. A political poet is eventually driven to examine the politics of their own culture. And the politics of Australian poetry culture…well I could quote Louise Waller but discretion prevents me.

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