Here’s the thing about political poetry

It was after convening my first twenty poetry readings and open microphone competitions that I figured out that political poetry has a really bad reputation in Australia.

As I hadn’t been on the Sydney poetry scene for long, it took another chunk of time to work out my definition of what political poetry is (and isn’t) and why it was where it was, which is not many places at all.

What I came up with shaped the way that I wrote my first book of poetry. Ruin is a sequence of 55 poems about the Iraq War told from four different points of view. Some of the poems have been previously published in this journal and others.

I’ll touch on my process later but first, I’ll lay out my definition of political poetry, as it relates to printed poetry and public readings in this country. (Unfortunately, I don’t have the space here to tackle issues facing poets in other countries but feel free to give your opinions.)

To me, ‘political poetry’ means poems of any kind of structure with a political theme. It is a poem with more on its mind than getting drunk or losing that beloved guy/girl/family dog. It is charged with asking the big questions and with addressing the issues of the day or with tackling traditional issues (war, poverty, official corruption, etc).

Unfortunately, right now, political poetry seems to be seen as undisciplined and shout-ey rants by an author on his/her pet topic. This can be very annoying when the best political poetry prides itself both on its structural rigour and its mission to reclaim language from those who most abuse it (politicians and commentators of the ‘Shut up! Shut up!’ Fox Television News breed).

I want to define what is the best in political poetry for me, so you can see where I am coming from. One example is Australian A.D.Hope’s ‘Inscription For A War’, a magnificently succinct and rhythmically evocative poem:

Linger not, stranger; shed no tear;
Go back to those who sent us here.

We are the young they drafted out
To wars their folly brought about.

Go tell those old men, safe in bed,
We took their orders and are dead.

Even minus the epigraph under the title – Stranger, go tell the Spartans we died here obedient to their commands. Inscription at Thermopylae – the poem powerfully communicates the timeless nature and, thanks to that driving rhythm, the inevitable carnage of all wars.

Another example is American Randall Jarrell’s ‘The Death Of The Ball Turret Gunner’. Similarly brilliantly succinct and rigorous in its narrative, it conveys an entire life, from birth to horrifying death:

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

And even though it seems deceptively laidback, Gwendolyn Brooks’ equally succinct ‘We Real Cool’ is also designed to show the inevitability of the lives depicted:

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

You don’t need to know that Brooks is African American to be drawn into the community depicted within the poem (the subtitle is ‘The Pool Players. Seven At The Golden Shovel’). Or to be shocked by the way that the finger-snapping rhythm is broken by the devastating omission of that final ‘we’.

To me, it is poetry’s precision in capturing the emotional life of a nation that is a political act in itself. It is very hard to accept the inanity and vagueness of former Prime Minister John Howard’s ‘We decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come’ when you are reading a poem that truly takes you into the lives of refugees, migrants, convicts, European settlers and, of course, the First People here. Even the best print news journalism, I think, cannot match poetry for compressed emotional intensity.

But political poetry has to be disciplined and ‘musical’ poetry. My key concern in Ruin was to use both free verse and traditional forms of poetry (villanelle, ghazal, sestina) to discipline the ‘message’ in the poems and to refine rhythm and rhyme.

Trying to avoid diatribes and ranting, and to explore the repercussions of war, was also the reason for using four voices: a female Sunni doctor, a young male American soldier, a female publicist for the White House, a Shia boy. Ditto the prose inserts which included quotes from George W Bush and excerpts from a 2006 Australian Society of Authors newsletter detailing censorship restrictions then placed on publications and on poets trying to perform in Wollongong Mall and buskers playing in Melbourne’s Bourke Street.

Four years on, does political poetry have a public presence here? In my opinion, no.

Social historians would have better reasons than I do but here are some points to consider:

* Is it because of that very Australian wariness of writers of not wanting to be seen to be telling other people what to do? Or the wariness of editors in not being seen to condone provocative political points of view, Left and/or Right?

* Is it part of a general nervousness about the miniscule state of the poetry market (funding slashed to independent publishing houses, entry fees raised on the major competitions) that editors/funding bodies are forced to appeal to what is perceived to be popular among poetry readers, who are traditionally largely comprised of poetry writers?

* Or does the problem have nothing to do with publishing decisions? Judith Beveridge, Poetry Editor of Australian literary journal Meanjin, notes that editors are simply not getting many politically themed poems. So, is this a case of good old-fashioned Australian complacency by the ‘me’ generation(s)? Does everyone want to be the star of their own lives, and their own poems?

* Is it a case of contemporary poetry being mostly practiced by well-educated middle-class writers who are simply not interested in – or do not have life experiences shaped by – overtly political issues?

* Or is it because poetry has given up its place in the public commentary, by refusing to comment, that poetry generally has been so devalued, thus further sidelining political poetry?

* And do Australians who have the most to protest about simply not see poetry as an effective medium for their message?

* Has political poetry been sidelined because what is perceived as the most popular form of poetry – the free form lyric – is also seen as diametrically opposed to political poetry? A lyric poem is foremost concerned with the emotional life of the poet which shouldn’t conflict with political poetry. But a weird division has arisen where the lyric is apparently not allowed to be political (it’s meant to be all ‘me’) and political poetry is not allowed to be personal (no ‘me’ at all). And yet the best political poetry, as in the above examples, has enough of the personal to emotionally engage the audience, without diluting the message. Those poems retain the lyrical writing (the musicality) that defines a poem as a poem and not a rant.

You can be lyrical and get your message across; you can retain musicality and still politically engage your audience. But it’s harder here than in many overseas countries, where political poetry still remains an important part of the culture.

At a recent Sydney inner-city festival (with an average yearly attendance of 80 000 according to organisers), only one of the ten poets who participated in the public reading tackled overtly political themes (guess who). The remaining poems were concerned with drinking, vomiting, travelling, failed love affairs, inner-city life and Sylvester Stallone. All were great fun on the stage but the overall effect was curiously introspective.

As someone who has convened 47 poetry readings in the past five years, the above example is a fair sampling of most Open Microphone sections. That 10% political poetry average only increased if the night was deliberately politically themed or the guest poet was noted in that field and also judged the Open Mic. I saw that percentage go up dramatically at readings by Professor Stuart Rees, the director of the Sydney Peace Foundation and author of Passion For Peace: Exercising Power Creatively, an inspirational book about the use of poetry in international peace and conflict negotiations.

Luckily, just like that old movie adage – there’s nothing wrong with the industry that a good film can’t fix – I think poetry can reclaim its place in contemporary society.

But political poetry and those who write it can’t sit on the sidelines. Like every other art form, political poetry must work hard to (re)claim its public place. Poets will have to make sure their poems work on all levels: the political and the lyric. They’ll have to deliver good work, and lots of it.

Why do it? Anyone who attends political fundraisers, readings or rallies (like Sydney’s 150 000-strong anti-Iraq War marches) knows that there is an audience out there who deserves better.

Roberta Lowing is a former film reviewer with Fairfax Media. For the past five years she has convened Sydney’s PoetryUnLimitedPress poetry readings. Her poetry collection Ruin is published by Interactive Press. Her first novel, Notorious, has just been published by Allen & Unwin.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

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  1. What a fantastic post – many questions to consider, no answers yet from me. I think poetry is generally undervalued in Australia and political poetry is even more so. I think political poetry is being written but not enough and not enough is getting published to make a dent in Australian awareness. Wouldn’t it be great if there was an online journal dealing with political poetry or current affairs (a weekly current affairs poem).

  2. What an inspiring piece thanks Roberta. ‘Ruin’ sounds amazing, I especially like the sound of your multiple viewpoints, will have to check it out. (I have read and loved ‘Notorious’.)

    Your questions are excellent, complex ones and I’d say apply to writers of fiction too. ‘Passion for Peace’ – the use of poetry in international peace and conflict resolutions – sounds fascinating. It reminds me of the story, in different context but equally about the power of poetry to touch places and do things nothing else can, Oodgeroo Noonuccal told of first reading her poem ‘Aboriginal Charter of Rights’ in 1962 at a FCAATSI meeting – the audience was silent, then exploded and ‘every black man and woman was on their feet saying “I want a copy”‘. She had put in words all their pain, loss, dreams, hopes.

    And I also think of Les Murray and his work such as the verse novel ‘Fredy Neptune’. Powerfully political, whatever one makes of his particular brand of politics.

    I’m also interested in the fact you say ‘I’ll lay out my definition of political poetry, as it relates to printed poetry and public readings in this country.’ Do you think political poetry is country-specific? Depends on a country’s issues of the day?

    I also love the poems you quote. The AD Hope one – yes, achingly spare – reminds me in its staccato rhythm (no avoiding its devastating, inexorable logic) of one of my favourite Sassoon poems:

    You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
    Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
    Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
    The hell where youth and laughter go.

  3. “Is it a case of contemporary poetry being mostly practiced by well-educated middle-class writers who are simply not interested in – or do not have life experiences shaped by – overtly political issues?”

    Unfortunately, this plays to the misconception about who is writing poetry these days. My ten favourite Australian poets are from diverse backgrounds: culturally, politically and socio-economically. And they are political. I doubt the poetry ‘powers that be’ would have ever heard of many of them though.

    Your comment should read:

    “Is it a case of PUBLISHED contemporary poetry being mostly WRITTEN by well-educated middle-class, MIDDLE AGED WHITE writers who are simply not interested in – or do not have life experiences shaped by – overtly political issues?”

  4. I was at the Queensland finals for the Australian Poetry Slam recently and only one finalist performed a political poem. He was let down by his lack of slamming experience unfortunately, and I felt for him when he forgot some of his words. He was also let down, in my opinion, by his diatribe – I appreciate anger in political poetry, especially in slamming, but he left all the thoughtfulness out.

    In contrast, as a warm up the organisers invited up a young man who wasn’t a finalist and who was “new to slam”. He shuffled on to the stage and then proceeded to deliver a poem about tasering a black man in a high street in front of people sipping their coffees. The poem was angry, thoughtful, his voice rose and so did the hair on my arms. He must have only been in his early 20s and he could have easily been one of the finalists for the quality of his words and delivery. Maybe there’s some hope yet for political poetry in Australia.

  5. It seems absurd to claim that there is no political Australian poetry. From literally hundreds of examples: there are the early Republicans writing against the Empire; countless poems from the early 1800s on about Aboriginal dispossession by writers both Indigenous and not (Noonuccal, Harwood, Fogarty, Hewett); contemporary poetry that addresses the whole question of environmental degradation, often linked to indigenous dispossession, and always critical of post-capitalist consumerism (Kinsella, Minter, Wright). There was the whole business of Poets Against the War, when the Coalition invaded Iraq in 2003. (There’s Robert Adamson’s exquisite poem, The Goldfinches of Baghdad…) I’d also question the placing of “political” outside the so-called “personal” lyric – what about Pam Brown, JS Harry, Gig Ryan, and countless others who have shown with acid clarity how the political exists in the personal? Futile or not, which is another question altogether, it seems utterly counterproductive to claim that these political concerns don’t exist in our poetry. Maybe the problem is actually that people are not aware of it.

  6. Firstly… there’s a poetry scene somewhere in Australia?! Are you sure?

    I agree with Alison Croggon that there is an abundance of political poetry written by Australian poets. You only have to look at back issues of Overland from 3 or 4 years ago (and beyond) to find that every poem published was overtly political.

    The definition of political poetry proposed here seems simplistic to me.

    What about the politics of getting drunk and losing one’s girlfriend/boyfriend/dog/cat? What if the dog/cat was run over by a BMW? What if the speaker was drinking cask wine? Why does a poet have to write something that addresses a current affair for it to be political? If a poet who is marginalised writes a poem about getting drunk and losing his/her girlfriend/boyfriend, is it political merely because of who wrote it?

    It’s also odd to me that you separate poetic form with subject matter in the opening of your definition of political poetry. As a Persian-Australian poet I’m confused as to why one would use the ghazal form – which is traditionally (and beautifully) used to express themes of love and spiritualism – for poems about war??

  7. Poetry should deal with political issues and take a stand not just comment on this or that war or the environment and how dreadful it all is. OLD NEWS. Poets and artists need to nail their allegiances to the wall. To become radical, irreverent, in ya face, challenge the status quo with new ideas, rattle the complacent cages of the entrenched establishment, left wing and right (ain’t much difference today). In Europe and the Americas Lumpen poetry and music is taking off – in other words poetry/music/art that’s not willing to compromise for sake of social etiquette, the dollar or because they might hurt someone’s feelings or step on someone’s toes. remember, in the arts, just like everywhere else, censorship is alive and well. Try this:

  8. Dear Roberta, Let me assure you there is a long tradition of publishing contemporary political poetry in the journal Social Alternatives. For over 40 years Social Alternatives has published political poetry by many of Australia’s most distinguished poets including Judith Wright and Oodgeroo (Kath Walker), plus many many others. The forthcoming issue for Feb 2015 themed Year of Peace contains political poems by outstanding Australian poets.

  9. Somewhat contradictorily, and this is a hunch, but should you deliberately set out to write a political poem, you’re more than likely not to succeed. Just as Zelensky has succeeded in winning over the most of the world against all odds.

  10. Calling this a political poem …


    heaven is like
    water & so damning
    it’s never there
    when you want it or
    there’s much too much
    there under the fridge
    its door swinging open
    drinking in deep arctic
    heat thawing out hell

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