Politics, poetry

2016 has been a tumultuous year in western politics. Here in the UK the repercussions of referendum result on leaving the European Union are yet to be understood.
Then there was the American election result which seems to have come as a shock to so many.
There has been much debate on the role of media- ‘mainstream’ and other-  and coining of terms such as ‘post-truth’ (lying), and ‘fake news’ (previously known as propaganda.)

As always, when events are perceived as unprecedented or representing a radical shift of some kind, there arises discussion about the relevance of poetry and its ability to reflect and respond to events. I’ve read several pieces about this, and have looked to poetry for solace, for precedence, for echoes, for sense.

Here is the poet Ocean Vuong –

“The reading of poetry is in itself an act of political resistance to the mainstream. Particularly in this election cycle, where there is this great anxiety for certainty. What is your position? What is your stance? Why are you flip-flopping? There’s an anxiety of certainty and power and boldness . But poetry acknowledges the true complexity of what it means to be human, which is that nothing is ever that certain.”

Another take on poetry and politics, or more specifically how to feel useful and engaged in a ‘time of crisis’ , can be found here.  I can relate to some of this article, but can’t help thinking that a lot of people were living in times of ‘crisis’ before the results of elections in the US shook up their world view. Don’t get me wrong. I am not complacent or immune to anxiety over recent developments. I’ve had recurring nightmares about Nazis which I imagine came about after hearing of the rise of white supremacists and their increased profile and apparent proximity to power in Europe and the United States. I worry about climate change and its denial. However, it is simplistic to think that all was well yesterday and that everything has suddenly changed for the worse.  Many people live under threat because of their gender, religion or race, or because of lack of access to basic sanitation and healthcare. The richest countries supply the arms that fuel conflicts in which civilians suffer.

I met a friend of mine recently who said that with ‘everything’ going on she couldn’t possibly write poems. I understood what she meant and thought of Adorno, German sociologist, philosopher , musicologist and composer, and of his statement, often, it seems quoted out of context, that ‘ there can be no poetry after Auschwitz. ‘

This is a huge area for philosophical debate and if I recommend visiting this site and particularly the comments section, if you are interested in the discussion and interpretation of this statement.

In his brilliant and wide-ranging article ‘A Politics of Mere Being’ for this month’s Poetry Chicago, the poet Carl Phillips writes

‘I know political has chiefly, as a word, to do with governing — and usually, more specifically, the governing of an entity such as a nation, a body of citizens — from the Greek politikos, relating to citizens, the people of the state, polis in Greek.’

Another definition might be that politics is about who gets what, when and why.

There are thousands of overtly political poems, poems that addresses issues or situations by name, that are powerful and memorable. A poem like Neruda’s ‘I’m explaining a few things’ which he wrote in response to the bombing of Guernica in the Spanish Civil war, bears witness to an inhumane act.  It contrasts many aspects of the complex and simple beauty of the city’s daily life prior to the atrocity with the destruction and suffering in the aftermath of the bombing. It is a timeless piece that serves as a monument, and sadly, remains relevant as an expression of disgust and horror.

Neruda is a great poet and was able, I think,  to write a worthy response to this event.  Not all poets can achieve this. Political poems can lack subtlety. They might read as ‘preachy’, or appear to tell the reader what to think.  The same is true, for example of songs. Although John Lennon wrote some great ones, his “Power to the People” is not one of them.  Perhaps at the other end of the scale is ” Strange Fruit“,  first recorded by the great Billie Holiday in the late nineteen thirties. The lyrics were originally a poem, written by American writer, teacher and songwriter Abel Meerpol. Meeropol had seen a photograph of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Indiana, and wrote his poem, which he  later set to music, to express his horror.

The heading of this post is ‘politics, poetry’ and I’m aware I’m rambling a bit. Perhaps a consideration of the interaction of these two subjects would be better suited to a thesis or two.

Definitions of the ‘political’ can extend into every aspect of human life. Accusations of poetry’s failure to respond to the ‘political’  seem to discount the recent increase in the diversity of voices being heard in British and American poetry- voices that arise from a wider range of gender and racial perspectives than previously heard; voices that articulate a wider range of experience.

As a contemporary writer it is possible to wonder if one is responding ‘well enough’ to political events. To feel that one is somehow failing to articulate responses to disturbing events. I recently picked up a second-hand copy of The Faber book of Reportage.


It is full of incredible eye-witness accounts that served to remind me (and it is a reflection on my distance from such events that
I might need reminding ) that barbarism on a huge scale is as old as the human race. This ongoing inhumanity has never prevented the celebration of its beauty in art. We have Neruda’s civil war poem, and we also have his love poems. We have Picasso’s  ‘Guernica’. We also have his ‘Child with dove’.


I suppose I am trying to articulate the rather obvious idea that not every artist can respond to ‘political’ events by producing ‘political’ art. However, I believe it is important for writers and artists of all kinds to respond to inhumanity and humanity on whatever scale they can, and by exploring their daily lives, to add, if they have the freedom and means to do so, their unique voice to the ongoing record of human experience.

Carl Philips articulates this far better than I can. Here he is again.

‘ A reason to broaden the definition of political is because each individual is different, and our poems will necessarily reflect that. In a democracy, that seems to me to mean that those who must write as witness to the savagery of, say, war should do so — that’s part of the record of what it means to be alive right now in 2016. So too, though, is the intimacy between a parent and child, so too is the agony of private despair that can blind us to what also counts as part of life — joy, in its myriad forms. To be alive has never been one thing, any more than a period of history is. At the same time, people are complex creatures, and we manifest our sensibilities in many ways. Writing is just one of them. …. How is it not political, to be simply living one’s life meaningfully, thoughtfully, which means variously in keeping with, in counterpoint to, and in resistance to life’s many parts? To insist on being who we are is a political act — if only because we are individuals, and therefore inevitably resistant to society, at the very least by our differences from it…. as we all should, if collectively we are to be an accurate reflection of what it will have been like to have lived in this particular time as our many and particular selves.’

There are lots of resources related to this massive topic here.

I’d welcome any thoughts. Thank you.


  1. Thanks Roy, for a thought-provoking post with lots of links to follow up. As a political person (with a small p) I find it impossible to write other than about the things that concern me, anger me, upset me, both domestically, nationally and globally. I find that the big problem is, as you point out, to avoid preaching and proselytising when writing about issues that deeply concern me. It is often difficult to ‘show not tell’ as both my fine art and creative writing tutors have said so often!


  2. Hi Diana, thank you very much for your comment and re-post. I often think of the power of Adrian Mitchell’s
    ‘Tell me lies about Vietnam’ and how important it was as a simple expression of anger . I think telling is sometimes essential.


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