Has American poetry become more politically relevant lately?
“Roy Takeno at town hall meeting, Manzanar Relocation Center,” Ansel Adams, via the Library of Congress.
From Jacket 2:
The claim for a “new” American poetry of engagement would seem to imply an earlier American poetry that lacked such engagement. And indeed, Keniston and Gray argue that nearly the entirety of twentieth-century American poetry can be characterized by its “relative apoliticism.” “The engagement evident in the poems of The New American Poetry of Engagement is remarkable,” Keniston and Gray write, “partly because it was not always so: most twentieth-century poetry in American went in quite the other direction.” Keniston and Gray assert that modernism’s focus on “depicting subjectivity in new ways” and on “fractured and traumatized consciousness” led to a turn “away from the political” and toward the personal — a trend extended into the second half of the century by the confessional poets. This antipolitical tendency was abetted, they argue, by modernism’s scholarly handmaiden, the New Criticism, with its “avoidance of the political” and rejection of context in favor of an “emphasis on the ‘poem itself.’”
That modernism was apolitical is certainly a debatable claim. Ezra Pound’s Cantos consigns Lloyd George and Woodrow Wilson to hell, espouses the monetary doctrines of Social Credit, and elegizes Mussolini; the early sections of Louis Zukofsky’s long poem “A” signal their leftist orientation with quotations from Marx and meditations on labor and war. Nor did modernism shy away from responding to historical events. T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land is frequently read as a depiction of the “ruins” of European society in the wake of the First World War, and Pound added his own bitter coda to the war in “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley”:
There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization.
Later, H.D.’s Trilogy unfolds in the shadow of the London Blitz, with “An incident here and there, / and rails gone (for guns) / from your (and my) old town square.”
In the later twentieth century, poets and critics would add to this assessment of modernism the assertion that modernist form itself constitutes a politics — that the non-narrative, fragmented, disruptive aesthetic of modernism presents a challenge to dominant linguistic and political ideologies. Since the 1970s, Language writing and its descendants have been the most visible contemporary partisans of a politics of poetic form, explicitly linking poetic experimentation with radical politics. One can certainly argue about the validity of such claims, but there can be little doubt that Language writing and its related tendencies proceed from a political intention. Why, then, does Language writing not feature in Keniston and Gray’s account of political poetry?
The answer, it would seem, is that the desire for a newly “engaged” poetry is not simply a desire for “political” poetry of just any kind. Instead, it would seem to be a desire for a very particular kind of political poetry, one that privileges “facticity and content,” that explicitly alludes to “public events,” that seeks to narrate, bear witness to, or represent such major events — that follows, as Keniston and Gray have it, Lowell’s imperative to simply “say what happened.” The 9/11 attacks are the paradigmatic “public event” of the era Keniston and Gray describe, and perhaps nothing captured this new moment of poetic engagement as well as the sudden vogue for a sixty-year-old poem: W. H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939.” Auden’s poem was widely quoted in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, its resonant phrases seeming to anticipate the events of 9/11 (“The unmentionable odour of death / Offends the September night”) and their possible causes (“Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return”), culminating in the poem’s anguished tagline: “We must love one another or die.” Yet the very fact that Americans would turn at this moment to a half-century-old poem by an English-born poet might be seen as signaling a certain lack of comparable voices in contemporary American poetry. As Brendan Bernhard would write in a reflection on Auden’s poem a decade after the attacks, “Poets who spoke with that measure of confidence and ambition no longer existed — at least not in America.”