. . . Political art

. . .

I'll wring the neck of any fucking bastard says a word against my bleeding fucking king

Ron Silliman has been writing again about poetry and politics. And a very sensible job he does; until the Justin Timberlake crack, anyway. (I'll take Atmosphere over Bob Dylan. Over Bob Hass, too.) But the most instructive aspect of his series may be the sidetracking of his comment thread onto the purported snub of one poet's weblog.

That's why, if anything, we need less poetry in politics: it's a bad example. San Francisco is likely to get a rich right-wing mayor because none of the three leading liberal candidates will give up the mic. If CNN thinks of politics as a football game and Fox as pro wrestling, the Greens think of it as a slam. The petulant is the political.

For over a century, English poetry has been marketed as self-expression, a category which comfortably includes the self-congratulation of repeating-what-all-right-people-believe. Silliman's counter-example -- early 1970s lesbian-feminist presses -- confirms poetry's selling-point: the (rarely so politically useful) inflation of the individual ego. So although poetry's political limitations can be glaring, I don't believe it can have any direct political influence.

What happens when poets try?

"Political poetry" wasn't oxymoronic for William Langland, but Langland's readers aren't John Ashbery's. Even the coat-turns of Wordsworth and Southey facilitated little but their own careers and own embarrassments.

Pound's propaganda found its most avid audience in his judges and its most tangible result in his incarceration; maybe Fascist profiteers would've been grateful for the distraction, but I doubt the case was important enough to be brought to their attention.

A political artist is a scapegoat deluded into thinking it's a Judas goat.

Poetry does nothing. (Except kill poets.)

Nobody listens to poetry. (Except in a deposition.)

. . .

To The Happy Tutor, in continuation and continuation

Wish I could locate our disagreement, if any, so we could keep up the conversation.
Your question inspires you to look for an answer; your question inspires me to look at the question. Naturally that leaves us not quite disagreeing.

Blake found America in his imagination and so he etched it, but not in a way that would influence British colonial policies. He might be suprised to find his visions yoked with Swift's polemics. What conceivable writing would take both as role model? That, I'd submit, is the question you're really wrestling with. (And the obvious answer would be "Your own.")

Having assumed some commonality among such public-domain genre workers as Swift, Blake, Goya, and Dickens, you go on to extend it to the insularities of the contemporary high art world rather than to contemporary genre workers. From such a hodgepodge of heroes, the only moral I can abstract is the one I drew before:

To my mind, a person, whether "artist" or not, produces a positive political effect by engaging honestly with the polis. By being attentive to human experience and humble about preconceptions, and by working as one worker among many. Basically by not being a dope or a jerk.
But "not being a dope or a jerk" seems enough non-goal to keep anyone busy for an difficult lifetime. Reinforcing prejudice is good business; good citizens rarely retire in comfort.

Repeatedly since the New Deal, we've seen the knowledge that the personal is political diverted into a fantasy that the individual is the political, as if the goal of political action is to feel good about oneself. If the goal is instead to change (or defend) government, that goal can only be achieved by explicitly political work. It may mean diverting a little money or time from more enjoyable parts of our life, or, as things worsen, distributing reportage or joining an army or hiding fugitives. It rarely means a clean conscience. It certainly doesn't mean issuing the fraudulent papal bulls of "political art."

Similarly, the knowledge that art is personal has been diverted into a fantasy that the individual is the point of art. As if a human being's profoundest goal should be to attain the status of Brand Name, trademarked into immortality. "Have you seen the new Star Wars?" "No, but have you read the new Dave Eggers?"

Art isn't politics. But bad art and bad politics have this disengagement in common.

Philip Guston re-engaged in the mid-1960s:

"The war, what was happening to America, the brutality of the world. What kind of man am I, sitting at home reading magazines, going into frustrated fury about everything -- and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue?"
And he changed his art to fit his knowledge.
"I have never been so close to what I've painted. Not pictures -- but a 'substitute' world which comes from the world."
Where "the world" is decidedly not "the art world" (or so the art world decided) and what he's painted is not quite "political art."

Nick Piombino (poet) and I (fanboy) have recently exchanged email about poetry and politics: the easy slide from "politics" (as in government policies) to "politics" (as in intragroup grudges, snubs, and favoritism); the pressure to confuse internecine warfare with craft. In the egalitarian world of weblogging, even poets can experience non-competitive non-solipsistic give-and-take. Although hit counts and blogrolls comfort those who can't picture life without zero-sum games and contested territory, I think Nick has good reason to hope for more positive engagement, especially given dedicated cross-community linkers like yourself.

So, if your big question is "What Is to Be Done?", I'm afraid my piddling answer is "Carry on."


. . .

The true wonders of this world

"... poets and artists in reviving a more living sense of our moral traditions are political in that way -- cleansing the air."

Regarding the ever-fresh topic of political art, I recommend scooting on over to the Sacramento Bee to listen to Maria Shriver's Maya Angelou reading at the inauguration of Herr Governor Schwarzenegger.

Even in a politician's wife, rarely have I heard fear so tightly corseted. But her strangled dignity reaches Story of O levels at the lines:

"... whose hands can strike with such abandon, that in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living. Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness, that the haughty neck is happy to bow and the proud back is glad to bend."
That truth was perhaps a little too brave and startling, since she then stumbles:
"Out of such chaos, out of such contradiction, we learn that we are neither devils nor divines. When we come to it, we this people, on this wayward floating body, created on this Earth, have the power to fashion for this Earth a climate where every man, and every woman, can live freely without sanctimonious piety and without --

"Enduring history --

"When we come to it, we this people on this wayward floating body, created on this Earth, of this Earth, have the power to fashion for this Earth a climate where every man and every woman can live freely without sanctimonious piety, without crippling fear. When we come to it, we must confess that we are the possible, we are the miraculous, the true wonders of this world. That is when, and only when, we come to it."

Where Shriver stumbled, of course, was at "crippling fear." Which she replaced with the improvised equivalent, "enduring history," an easier thing to live without.

In either case, one could say that she spoke truth to power, since Maria and Arnold, like Angelou's other admirers, would indeed be willing to confess that they are the possible, that they are the miraculous.

But why should speaking truth to power so often involve marriage to power and the duty, as hostess to power, of keeping attractive young women out of power's groping hands at public functions?

Well, that's where art comes into it.

This poem was written and delivered in honor of the 50th anniversary of the United Nations.
© Maya Angelou


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.