David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: 9 Post-Election Political Poems You Must Read Before You Die


I’m writing this on Tuesday, November 6, Election Day. Full disclosure, today I will vote to reelect the president. As John F. Kennedy once said, “You can milk a cow the wrong way once and still be a farmer, but vote the wrong way on a water tower and you can be in trouble.”

So, whatever may be happening after today, and I hope the election is resolved, if you’re looking for some serious respite from the post-mortem and the voting stress, just remember two things: first, elections have consequences and they are real and, second, there are just 1,461 days until Election Day 2016 — I’m talking to you, Hillary Clinton.

In the meantime, Poetry Wire is ready to unwind a little from what has been, unfortunately, an uninspiring campaign all around.

And yet: it is Election Day! We vote in the most soulless fashion out here in Oregon — by mail — though we are stubborn in this household. Our tradition is that we personally drop off our ballots on Election Day itself. And by drop off I mean we slip our sealed envelopes into a mailbox-like container that sits outside, and is monitored by, the county elections office up the street.

Certainly Election Day is democracy’s form of mythologizing itself. It’s democracy’s most idealized poem. So Poetry Wire’s general election fever has not entirely receded. In that spirit here are nine political lyric poems you must know before you die. listed in alphabetical order by title (sorry, Homer and Publius Virgilius Maro, epics are restricted from the list).

“A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto” by Czezlaw Milsoz. The most important poem of our time to dramatize the severities of civilization’s guilt and state-sponsored murder.

“Baltics” by Tomas Transtromer. It defines a social consciousness coming awake in the world, a consciousness that threads both the political and interior moment.

“Diving into the Wreck” by Adrienne Rich. All the while it buries one poetic tradition, it births another into existence. Its irrefutable argument assimilates, integrates, and overcomes one identity for another and inspires more than feminist flowering. I mean, it un-ruins the ruins. A poem the world will be reading for centuries.

“For the Union Dead” by Robert Lowell. There are days I believe that this is the best American political poem of the 20th century. Yes, best. It combines confessional urgency with historical judgment. Its confrontation of race carved between New England’s Protestant-Catholic divide dramatizes the progressive experience of seething. Don’t be fooled: That kind of utterance is nearly impossible to pull off without collapsing into partisan cant.

“Howl” by Allen Ginsburg. For real, this poem gets better with age. It is the most Occupy Poetry poem of the last sixty years. It glorifies the marginalized and the revolutionary. All the while, like Whitman’s “Lilacs” poem, it is also an elegy and full of broken-hearted yearn-age.

“I, Too, Sing America” by Langston Hughes. How Hughes renders defiance as surprise makes this one of the most elegant political poems in our language.

“Requiem” by Anna Akhmatova. It translates one woman’s political suffering into a lyric utterance. It confirms one nation’s bout with its own terror. And more: it defines harrow and anguish into myth.

“The Second Coming” by W. B. Yeats. This poem eviscerates the idea that political poetry must be occasional. It is of political experience not about one. Though it is strangely difficult to summarize or paraphrase, the political consciousness in this poem, certainly fearful of power, is also an aesthetic sculpture of lyric purity.

“When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” by Walt Whitman. It is nearly a perfect elegy — an elegy as ars poetica even — defining both Republic and private loss. The section about Union and Confederate soldiers returning to their disembodied agrarian lives while the 16th president lies in state as the last casualty of the war is Whitman at his most interiorly bardic fineness.

That’s a round nine. Yes, yes, Poetry Wire concedes: lots of great political poems didn’t make the list. Please don’t shoot the messenger.

Instead: How about this? Poetry Wire invites you to add your Political Poems You Must Read Before You Die in the comments section below. And, please, spread the word to others to do the same.

What are your nominations for political poems we all must read before we die? Or, at least, before the next Iowa Straw Poll takes place, scheduled for the second Saturday in August in 2016.

David Biespiel is a poet, literary critic, memoirist, and contributing writer at American Poetry Review, New Republic, New York Times, Poetry, Politico, The Rumpus, and Slate, among other publications. He is the author of numerous books, most recently The Education of a Young Poet, which was selected a Best Books for Writers by Poets & Writers, A Long High Whistle, which received the 2016 Oregon Book Award for General Nonfiction, and The Book of Men and Women, which was chosen for Best Books of the Year by the Poetry Foundation and received the 2011 Oregon Book Award for Poetry. More from this author →