This week, two of my more political poems were published in the international journal Tuck. One of them, “Hilton Head November,” caught the attention of a reporter for a regional publication that serves Hilton Head and surrounding communities. I visited Hilton Head one month after Hurricane Matthew and a week after the 2016 presidential election. One thing I saw –
At a great pine blow-down,
walls ripped aside like playing cards
expose gated communities
as if they were mere women.
The reporter contacted me to do an interview about how the poem came to be and whether it was critical of Hilton Head’s affluence. He thought my perspective might interest readers and offer a different viewpoint from the ones they usually come across.
In the course of working in English Departments at various colleges and universities, I’ve heard many a screed against mixing politics and poetry. Not surprisingly, in the 1970’s and 1980’s, these diatribes were often directed at women writers (Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde) who “used” poetry to transmit political messages about the women’s movement, lesbian culture, and race and class divisions. Some literary critics have argued that any attempt to insert a message into a poem violates the purity of poetry as an art form.
I find these arguments specious at best, and I love using an academic word like “specious” (means “seems right at first glance, but actually wrong” or “attractive on the outside, but deceptive) to describe them. Audre Lorde once said “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” and I believe her, but I still love throwing the master’s words back at him. Hard.
Poetry, like all of the arts, has always been used to advance political positions. Poetry, like all of the arts, is by nature impure. All kinds of nasty stuff gets mixed into the creative process.
Consider two artists who are dead and beyond reproach: Michelangelo and Shakespeare. Michelangelo painted for the Renaissance-era Catholic Church, a powerful political force. He created images of God and other characters from the Bible that provoked a useful and appropriate sense of awe in the populace. Many of Shakespeare’s plays center on political institutions (monarchy, anyone?) and struggles for control. It’s nothing new.
Political poetry is experiencing a resurgence in Trump-era America, and I’m grateful. It challenges our assumptions and brings us together as we speak and act against the injustices and oppressions of yesterday and today.
But don’t get me wrong: I’m also a true believer in the power of confessional literature to widen our understanding of what it means to be human. I admire the brave writers who examine their personal lives, bring old secrets out into the light, and share their desires, mistakes, and vulnerabilities. Because as I learned from the activist/theorist/artists/writers of the 1970’s and 1980’s, the personal – no matter how much we try to insist it’s unique – is always political.