In a politics of fear, poetry seeks truth

Poetry is having a moment. The late Maya Angelou can be heard narrating Apple’s new iPhone ad with her poem ‘The Human Family’ (‘We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike’); Beyoncé quotes the contemporary British great Warsan Shire in her magnum opus Lemonade; and telco giant Telstra has enlisted Australian Poetry Slam Champion Phil Wilcox for its ‘Magic of Technology’ campaign. Meanwhile, Penguin has re-released its Modern Poets series, and ABC’s iView has launched the six-part poetry slam documentary series The Word.

It is an extraordinary time for poetry, that most decadent language, when words are suffering brutal devaluation elsewhere. Words have always held an ambivalent position in politics, but there is a sense, now, that they don’t mean much at all. They are used to evoke fear and stoke the fires of conservatism and bigotry that lie – never quite extinguished – in Western imaginations. Words are jammed together like the worst jargon in order to suggest aptitude; to steer frightened minds towards reassuring symbols of safety (‘jobs and growth’). And they are most routinely sought to obfuscate matters and to abdicate responsibility – to draw an opaque veil, distancing the speaker from the inconveniences levelled at them.

Recently, both Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett in the Guardian and Bryan Appleyard in the Times noted that we turn to poetry in periods of uncertainty, citing Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump. In Australia, we are witnessing our own wave of conservatism with the return of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party. Cosslett suggests that Trump’s ‘is a politics governed by emotion, just as poetry often is. Perhaps this is why … you might turn to [a poem] instead of a newspaper.’

But while it is emotive, poetry is not so much concerned with emotion as it is with truth, with precision. Poetry has always been necessary because of its access to the intangible, for its ability to transcend the inadequacies of ordinary language and convey what is otherwise unable to be said. Not that all poetry is any good, or that all poets are righteous; but poets are, at least – by virtue of form – honest about their intentions.

Truth is, of course, subjective, and Trump is obsessed with it. Interviewed on CNBC last month, he responded to reports of his falling support:

Look, all I do is tell the truth. I’m a truth teller. All I do is tell the truth.


I think the only difference between me and the other candidates is that I’m more honest and my women are more beautiful.


My Twitter has become so powerful that I can actually make my enemies tell the truth.

For all of this posturing, a lot of what Trump says doesn’t make sense. He, along with his conservative contemporaries, frequently flouts the bottom-line requirement of coherence.

On Q&A, Senator Pauline Hanson was asked why her party is calling for a royal commission into Islam. She explained: ‘Islam does not separate itself from political ideology and, whereas the Christianity, under the Westminster system, we are – separate the rule of law from the – from the State. So they are separate. Islam doesn’t and a lot of the countries that are ruled under Islam is their ideology – the political ideology.’

Similarly, a Trump speech is a rambling stream of consciousness that cycles around on itself, digressing almost constantly, before delivering a few key clear phrases about, for instance, Mexicans stealing Americans’ jobs.

In these speeches, words are clumsily mashed together like a child’s blocks. They evoke vague, but powerful feelings. They peddle emotion without substance – kerosene poured onto a lone lit match. This rhetoric, like Hanson’s, is aggressive, fearful, ugly. Worse, it is an insult to the intelligence of the public who receive it.

For all the accusations levelled at poetry, poetry doesn’t talk down. Its ubiquity refutes the old idea that poetry is inaccessible to the everyday reader, that its conventions of play and metaphor make its meaning impenetrable. Indeed, poetry flourishes among minority communities.

Perhaps the popularity of poetry – beautiful, empathetic, exact – is a reaction to the ugliness, slipperiness and dishonesty of conservatism. When we use poetic language, we are trying to articulate what has otherwise gone unsaid, or what others refuse to say. What may be described as poetry’s complexity is its visible structures, its processes. Stéphane Mallarmé famously wrote that, in poetry, words ‘light up from their reciprocal reflections, like a virtual swooping of fire across precious stones.’ Endlessly referential, the act of reading a poem is to follow a writer’s working-out; to observe how they articulate and summon that truth.

Beautiful art is created under harsh conditions, and there has never been a harsher time for words. When language is abused so flagrantly by demagogues, we crave the truth to which poetry aspires.


Image: ‘All’s Well that Inks Well’; Chris Wightman/Flickr

Jessica Alice

Jessica Alice is the Poetry Editor of Scum. She tweets @jessica_alice_.

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  1. Thanks for this essay, which is as empathetic and exact as the poetry it’s talking about. I would only add that poetry returns language to its relational source, our bodies and potential for solidarity. Also, I think, it often isn’t simply “beautiful”, but reveals the beauty of what (or who) is normally considered ugly.

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