Politics and Poetry
Nicholas Powers, Theater of War: The Plot Against the American Mind (Brooklyn, NY: Upset Press, 2004);
Sam Friedman, Seeking To Make the World Anew: Poems of the Living Dialectic (Lanham, MD: Hamilton Books, 2008).
What is the relationship between politics and poetry? Are poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” as Shelley tells us, or is there a more equivocal connection between the worlds of poetry and politics? Is political content implicit in personal poems? Bertolt Brecht, who is well known as a political poet, provides us with striking personal poems such as “Of Poor B.B.,” a portrait of the writer in a hostile, cold and sinister city. In a more surreal and imagistic vein, Federico García Lorca’s “Poet In New York” takes us into the phantasmagoric world of the city which he visited on the cusp of the Great Depression. His “The King of Harlem” propels us into a nightmare vision of race, anger, and the latent power of the oppressed. And our own Walt Whitman, with his expansive vision of America, encourages rebellion after seeming successes in “Song of the Open Road.”
Nicholas Powers in Theater of War and Sam Friedman in Seeking to Make the World Anew provide us with very different poetic manifestations in their effort to create personal political poetry at the beginning of the 21st century. Both poets, like Whitman, aim for scope in their work, and we feel that they want to “encompass multitudes.” In their most effective poems the individual (the poetic “I”) reaches out to engage with humanity in a larger “political” way. Their poems give us little solace, but provocatively force us to question our attitudes and actions toward people near and far in a global political context.
Powers, in his introduction, calls Theater of War “a small book of poetry that exposes the fascist truth of my nation.” Friedman speaks of remaking the world as a “revolutionary task,” described in his poem “After, on the way to thereafter” in a quasi political-religious vision of the New Jerusalem.
Powers’s book includes strong personal poems and an extended satiric parody, “The Whitey House,” interspersed among the sections of the book. “WTC Office Worker” takes us into the consciousness of an office worker in a blazing building as he gets ready to leap. To poetically enter into the mind of someone on the verge of annihilation is a powerful way to stir our empathy for the victim and make us think of possible alternate roads that we could have taken to avoid 9/11. Entering the psyche of the narrator makes us think of larger global issues and their consequences: “… I wonder what stain I’ll make / on the sidewalk.”
In “Ash Mouth,” Powers viscerally helps us to remember the dead from the WTC and other holocausts, by vividly recalling the taste and smell of ash from the burning towers which assaulted me five miles uptown in Manhattan. Can a poetic encapsulation of this event, this “blowback” as some have termed it, enlighten us and lead us to change our political attitudes and our government’s policies towards the “others” in the world? At his strongest, Powers, through disturbing particulars, makes us feel the pain of the victims of other genocides.
“The Red Smudge” illustrates with particular acuteness our contemporary global connections. A woman worker in an Indonesian factory stabs herself with a needle, smudges the blood on a pair of Nikes, and is burned to death in a factory fire. Rashid, a bored young black brother, goes to Foot Locker, purchases these brand new Jordans and curses his luck: “Damn, there’s a red smudge on my Jordans.” From the specific event in the Third World factory, to the dismissal by a young black man in a US city of the blood shed far away by an Indonesian woman, this prose poem interconnects things which seem to have no apparent relationship. Poetic images leap and swirl through the mind of the reader, bridging events and cultures thousands of miles apart.
Powers’s “The Prisoner” gives us a horrific description of a detainee in Abu Ghraib involving us personally in his torture:
They took my fingernails
I can’t hold the Koran without bleeding
Two of the later polemical satiric sections, “Ignite a New Era in Global Economic Growth to Free Markets of Fee Raiders” and “Expand the Circle of Envelopment by Opening Societies and Billing the Instructors of Democracy,” have contemporary resonance in light of capitalism’s current economic meltdown: “A strong whirl economy entrances our national serendipity by advertising prosperous hand-jobs in the West of the whirl.”
Poetically and politically Powers presents us with a literary post-mortem of the demise of capitalism detailed in an early 21st century government report. His fusion of poetry with satiric polemic and documentary evidence provides us with an uneasy but ambitious juxtaposition of graphic imagery with a satiric depiction of capitalist imperialism and the US drive for global hegemony. But the most successful poems in this book are personal, and these are also the most effectively political, taking the reader outward to look at the world from a fresh viewpoint.
Sam Friedman is a self-described Marxist Humanist, who has gone through a number of political changes on the left over the years, as he worked as an AIDS researcher and wrote political poetry. In Seeking to Make the World Anew, he imbues his vision of political change with personal experience and poetic energy. Writing about the experience of work in “Modern Times” with ironic reference to the Chaplin film, he ends the poem with these words: “We sell our lives / … For pennies, dimes and dollars.” Friedman’s inner pain is directed toward the dehumanization of the lives around us, and collectively involves us all in the daily world of labor.
As I write, Israel is relentlessly bombing Gaza killing many innocent civilians. In “Never Again,” Friedman frames questions about “blood on the floor” shed by Jews, the children of the Holocaust, and their present-day Palestinian victims. He sears the pain of the victims into our consciousness and makes us reflect on memory and morality: “Why do the tortured now torture others? / how can the children turn into wolves?”
The possibility of an ecological apocalypse jolts the reader with the image of a lone cat in “A Few Years Down the Road.” The cat, a stand-in for the poet, is depicted as the last rebel, after humanity has vanished from the face of the earth. This is more than a confession of psychic pain. It is an indictment of human actions: “a lonely cat spits last defiance / at a glaring acid sky.” “Two-Two Nineteen Sixty” zeroes in on the personal with these lines:
My teachers droned their dedication to science and technology
and a poetry so personal we couldn’t find its persona.
This poem is not hermetic or self-reflexive. The personal points outward to help define the larger world. Friedman accuses the gods of progress and technology of removing us from our true emotions.
The book ends with “Second Negation: Notes on the Day After the Revolution” and a questioning refrain that forces us to think about the previous poems: “And as I wander, I wonder / ‘What the hell do we do next?’” This question will remain in the reader’s mind.
Friedman sometimes employs a poetical rhetoric derived from the political: slogans, chants and societal clichés. This works best in the poems with a song-like refrain such as “Second Negation.” Other times he creates polemic litanies which become tedious. Whenever Friedman lets his personal experiences of school, environmental destruction and work illuminate the political – in poems like “Two-Two Sixty Two,” “A Few Years Down the Road” and “Modern Times” – his poems have a unique power to reach us.
Two contemporary poets, Powers and Friedman, give us different approaches – polemical and personal – for dealing with the political in a poetic way. If I can draw any conclusion about their disparate works, it is this: if a poem is highly personal and creates a strong image or story for us, then it will leave an indelible mark in our minds and will help transform our perception of the larger world. Brecht did this regularly in his political poems. Powers and Friedman at their best achieve this too. With radical personal/political content, a poem can provide a vision for the future, helping us see that a world based on cooperation and non-hierarchical human relations is possible.
Does poetry have the power to change the world? Words can capture the Zeitgeist. Poetry can certainly alter our consciousness, leading to the liberation of imagination and the possibility of social change.
Reviewed by Howard Pflanzer, playwright
Latest play: Living With History: Camus Sartre Beauvoir
Adjunct Professor, John Jay College (CUNY)