The Myth of the Apolitical American Poet
by Michael T. Young
I recently heard a poet complain that the poets he friended on Facebook seemed more like activists than poets. He was considering leaving Facebook until after the election so he didn’t have to listen to the ranting and debating. I thought this was a good thing—the activism that is. It was also proof of what I’ve always argued: that American poets are deeply engaged in the relevant issues of our day.
There’s an assumption that American poets don’t engage politics or social issues. We’re believed to be only concerned with our personal lives and to write only about that. To most Americans our poets are all confessional in the worst sense of the word and write only an obscure, self-absorbed poetry and this is why they aren’t read. However, this is a myth. Although we engage personal issues, it is through them that we engage the true social and political issues of our day and this is the way to be most fully engaged. Take a poem like “Charlie Howard’s Death” by Mark Doty. Charlie Howard was a teenager who was murdered in 1984 because he was homosexual. Three other teenagers chased him down and threw him over a bridge into a river, though he protested that he couldn’t swim. Doty wrote a poem that is not only personally relevant since he is also a gay man, but one that is emotionally powerful and complex, aesthetically beautiful and socially relevant since gay rights are among the most relevant of socio-political topics of our time. Much of Doty’s poetry deals with gay issues, and these are both personally relevant and relevant to the larger cultural setting of our day.
Another poet who engages both socio-political topics and personal issues simultaneously is Gerald Stern. For instance, in his poem, “The Same Moon Above Us,” he imagines a homeless man as the exiled Ovid, which also allows him to identify with Ovid as a poet and thus the three become one and the poem on one of its levels is a commentary on poverty in America. Poverty is exile, and like the exile they are granted no voice because judged already. Who among the homeless are our exiled Ovids, which of them may be an unsung Milton or Keats? Another of Stern’s poems is “June Fourth,” which with subtlety engages the perspective of a worker and the authority that oppresses him. In a short span it ropes together everything from the metaphysical to the economic in a nuanced language about power and what creates the fertile ground of revolt. The poem is set in the world of factory life for Bethlehem Steel. It confronts the core issues embodied in the Occupy Wall Street Movement though written decades ago.
This kind of socio-political engagement can be found in many contemporary poets such as Cynthia Atkins, Okla Elliott, Barbara Elovic, Richard Levine, Djelloul Marbrook, and Joe Weil, just to name a few. Furthermore, many poets are politically active in some respect. Richard Levine identifies himself as a political activist and is quite busy working against fracking in New York. Djelloul Marbrook is a former journalist and, for many, is a source of alternative views to the standard media outlets like the New York Times or CNN. And it is not only these poets who are not nationally known or winning our biggest prizes who are so engaged. For instance, Wendell Berry, in addition to being a magnificent poet, and a recipient of a National Medal of Arts and Humanities, has spent his life writing about and defending small farmers against large corporations and monopolies. In many ways, he was fighting the power of the 1% long before those in Occupy Wall Street were born.
To highlight both their political activism and their engagement with issues in their poetry, is not to argue that our poets use poetry in service to politics or as a mere linguistic soapbox. Nothing could be worse or a greater artistic torture to endure. Our poets know this. If not explicitly, at least implicitly, they know what George Oppen argued, that “the good life, the thing wanted for itself, the aesthetic, will be defined outside of anybody’s politics, or defined wrongly.” Thus to engage the socio-political concerns of our time or any other, is to do it from the point of view of the personal, of the individual life lived. Our poets are in the position to be more clearly engaged with the real issues because they approach them from the point of view of living and not from the stance of rhetoric.
As the myth about the Romantics being non-political crystalized around their actively creating this image, so too the American poet as an apolitical writer intent only on the reality of his immediate world was created by those poets. Our poets often insist on concrete rather than abstract work, the immediate and visceral rather than the remote and intellectual. I think that insistence in theory has resulted in an image that is not true to practice. One reason for it may be that our poetry’s language is the opposite of political speech, which is always evasive, abstract, an incantation of generalizations meant to charm you to sleep and vote. Poetry is meant to wake you up.
Most of the Romantics were active supporters of the French Revolution, much of Blake’s poetry is charged with socio-political concerns and Byron himself died fighting in the Greek War for independence. The critic, Jacque Barzun, wrote a brilliant book called Classic, Romantic, Modern, which debunked the myths about the Romantic poets, one of those myths being that they had no interest in politics. In much the same way, a book could be written debunking this same myth about American poets. But I think a better thing to do is read American poetry and pay attention to the socio-political realities underlying their themes.
If Americans spent a little time reading their poets, they would wake up to the fact that America is rich with a poetry that engages every relevant issue of our time from the personal to the political, and might even learn that most poets realize these can’t be separated. To live life in a democracy is to be political. To grapple with the issues of your daily life and to write about them is to comment on and confront the reality of the republic in which we live. It might also give us, as a country, pause to wonder why exactly our poets are not more widely read since it is not because they don’t address issues relevant to our lives. They are, in fact, more concerned about what’s happening in our country than most. And maybe that’s really why they aren’t read, not because they don’t engage the important issues but precisely because they do. Most other Americans would rather watch a sitcom, wrapping themselves in its humorous triviality, like a child imagining the blanket he pulls over his head can protect him against anything that might emerge from the darkness while he sleeps.