Asking friends recently what has their attention in contemporary American poetry, I received the reply, “Well, we have a new poetry now that wants to be a record of seeing into the lives of politically minded Americans and also be in the service of how these lives are being lived in encounters with racism, war, reactionary affairs of state, and a rigged justice system.” Enough material in those topics, I thought, to occupy American poets for a thousand years.
Or, for not very long at all.
Finding a genuine topic for writing, something convincing, tenable, is the work from coast to coast of what you might honorably call average, everyday, American poets who toil at the shopworn, the provincial, the pseudo-poetic, but also negotiate with questions of life, suspicions about death, trials of our waking hours, and on and on.
So often the discoveries a poet makes are blindingly obvious. And I have been writing and thinking about poetry for well on three decades so I’m always at risk of being long in the tooth about this sort of thing. Two things make sense to me right now in our poetic and political cultures—which are, as ever, one and the same. Poetic movements come and go, first of all. And, this moment in our nation’s political history is absolutely not period the worst crisis period in American politics ever period. Two hundred and fifty years of slavery—where one person had absolute power over another person, controlling their life, liberty, and fortune, subjecting them to forced labor, separating families by selling husbands, wives, and children, and punishing them with the whip or by hanging—were worse than Donald Trump. Some of my contrarianism comes from a trust in both the swings of electoral politics and old-fashioned legislative nose-counting. I know, among my fellow liberals in the Trump era, a wee seventy days, I remind you—as was the case with our conservative counterparts during the Obama years—the revulsion at so quaint a faith is practically acroamatic.
I could introduce you to scores of politically enthusiastic and intelligent poems from the archives, highly aware of the issues of their day, composed by well-informed poets on all matters of environmental and human rights, acrimony, war and violence, but to none of whom would it have occurred to subject themselves to what passes for intense political introspection. To say nothing of humility. Those poets are willing, if not eager, to give up potentially more interior subjects in order to work current affairs into their poems, and in so doing, certainly expand the range of what a general poetry audience considers poetic topics. The great honor and distinction of writing on behalf of the anima, the nobility and spirit and force of human soul-searching, the marrow of contemplation, is not, at present rewarded.
Consider: what normal poet would face the constant hassle and hair-splitting of Facebook and Twitter if he or she announced they are uninterested in writing about the social and political tumult that our country is experiencing? And, if only that was the worst of it. Then comes the grub work of trying to raise awareness of thinking by feeling, not as a substitute for ideas but, as Christopher Hitchens once put it, as “a means of creating stories rather than reporting them.” Poets today feel that none is allowed to doubt what the moment calls for or lack conviction.
Well I don’t know. Really, I don’t. I’m in the fight, and all, but is this the only dogfight for a poem? Really? Do I offend? Send me to the gulag.
A fresh and original sound, a frank acceptance of the complexities of literary tradition, antipathy to rhetoric, and a deep, considered political memory has long been the criteria for political poets, since what is truly subversive is not to reprove the government but to put the psyche first. Asserting the imprint of the poet’s mind is an American poetic ideal, too, beginning with Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, and few poets have shaped that imprint as finely as A. R. Ammons does in his remarkable poem “The City Limits,” a poem that transmits the political through the filter of the private—
When you consider the radiance, that it does not withhold
itself but pours its abundance without selection into every
nook and cranny not overhung or hidden; when you consider
that birds’ bones make no awful noise against the light but
lie low in the light as in a high testimony; when you consider
the radiance, that it will look into the guiltiest
swervings of the weaving heart and bear itself upon them,
not flinching into disguise or darkening; when you consider
the abundance of such resource as illuminates the glow-blue
bodies and gold-skeined wings of flies swarming the dumped
guts of a natural slaughter or the coil of shit and in no
way winces from its storms of generosity; when you consider
that air or vacuum, snow or shale, squid or wolf, rose or lichen,
each is accepted into as much light as it will take, then
the heart moves roomier, the man stands and looks about, the
leaf does not increase itself above the grass, and the dark
work of the deepest cells is of a tune with May bushes
and fear lit by the breadth of such calmly turns to praise.
This poem has no megaphone for regional, sectional, national, or international interests, nor mood swings of public sentiment. Nor does it confess to anything except living. It is far removed from this season’s rash of demagogic, cartoon, cliche portraits of American political and economic life. It stands, as I read it, as an example of the kind of poetry that does not intend to call anyone to it. It is unconcerned with its effect. So far as I can tell, it seems to have arisen from some inexhaustible source and simply exists—even as a reader, perhaps involuntarily, discovers its intensity.
Preexistent anger and furious awareness may be one of the sources of Ammons’s disposition in the poem, but the poem argues against that condition as some inevitable fate. It is primarily an embodiment of the rhythms of struggle, the rhythms of need. The poem asks what Carl Jung once asked, “Do we ever understand what we think?” Only to answer that we understand only our isolation and our ignorance, and through that difficulty of being human, we enter a momentary praise.
What I mean to say is, a nation’s poetry degenerates if it does not embody the language of what is mysterious, including all that which is hidden behind the eyes of each person that, time and again, becomes the “Urge and urge and urge,” as Whitman says, always the “procreant urge,” to express life.
This is part nine of a twenty-one part series. Here are links to parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8. These pieces will appear every two weeks. We value your feedback and your suggestions for other pieces to be included in this list of poems which shaped, and continue to shape, America.