VerseDay: The imperative of political poetry

I’m not a political poet. Not for the most part, anyway. I certainly never wanted to be one, and I had been writing for a number of years before this finally happened:

I don’t want to say too much for fear of being misconstrued
or maybe
for fear of being understood all too clearly

so here’s your warning –
flowers sometimes bloom quite literally,
unfurling in the dewfall to kiss
mother sky good morrow.

And sometimes wolves change their sheep
clothes for pinstripes.


these truths we hold to be self-evident

fade to black,
seven ancient words
lost in the splash and white noise –
bites, topspin, code.

Make no mistake:

style has triumphed over substance;
our shamans hire out as consultants;
God is coming to pay-per-view;

and a thousand points of light
are less than nothing
in a million miles of darkness.

Surely some gentle beast,

its hour come round at last,

casts its drowsy eyes
across the land.

Surely it wonders –
what is this terrible myth
My Word has become?

Certainly political verse has a long and noble tradition, and some of my own heroes were pretty darned political in both their writing and their professional lives. This poem makes direct reference to William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” and Yeats’ earlier writing provided the mythic foundations for the Irish rebellion against England. Later on he became a legislator, even. Eliot’s writing had its socio-political tones, and if I track back through the parts of the canon I always liked the most I come across people like Arnold, Byron – even the Metaphysicians and cavalier poets who sashayed off to a righteous ass-whipping at the hands of Cromwell’s Roundheads.

To Lucasta, Going to the Warres

TELL me not (Sweet) I am unkinde,
That from the Nunnerie
Of thy chaste breast, and quiet minde,
To Warre and Armes I flie.

True; a new Mistresse now I chase,
The first Foe in the Field;
And with a stronger Faith imbrace
A Sword, a Horse, a Shield.

Yet this Inconstancy is such,
As you too shall adore;
I could not love thee (Deare) so much,
Lov’d I not Honour more.

Still, I felt no call to political commentary. But over time I think it became more and more inevitable. I wanted, perhaps, to be left alone to write about love and loss and spirituality and a variety of more apocalyptic themes, but the political world wouldn’t leave me alone. Maybe this is how it was for my heroes. Maybe Yeats never wanted to write about politics – certainly “Easter 1916” isn’t something he’d have ever hoped for.

We live in a period where it’s almost impossible to write without at least political implication. Sure, most of life is political in some respects, but is it possible for the writer with a soul to keep down the foul, necessary beast that is the public expression of outrage?

Maybe. Maybe it’s just me. But I’ll leave you with a taste of the sort of thing that keeps insisting on being written.


Our legions are marching on the
City of Rain, our bleeding
bare feet, bone against concrete,
tearing ruts in the King’s highway.

We remember the lash and the
hole. We remember Babylon
Ballroom, silver trays of cheese and
meats and candy-twist liqueur, the
splay of light tinkling
wine-filled crystal,

but later,
hunched over our books and
tearing at stale bread, we
recite the lessons we
will teach you soon:

there is no difference between

palace and prison,
champagne and hemlock,
chandelier and gallows.

When gunfire rips at the hinges of dawn,
we will decorate lampposts with your
heads and feed your tongues to corbies.

When pyres of burnished mahogany
roil the skies of Hell,
we will kill you last,
saving you and savoring as you
boil in the dying screams of your

Pinned to the wall like butterflies,
you will hang in the grand gallery
twitching for centuries among the
handbills of kleptocracy:

your economies of fraud,
grifters in the boardroom, jowls
dripping with grease,

your genocides of neglect,
sucking the bones of your
feasting tables clean
while abandoned children and stray dogs
fight for scraps
in your alleys
in your roach-ripe tenements
in fields scalding with immigrant despair
in the flesh-caked machines of your factories
in your third worlds
on your oil-soaked beaches
in extinctions that once were forests
aflame with birdsong

in the shadow of church bells
tolling beneath your mansions.

This Do in the Name of Commerce,

we are your shareholders now, flooding down the
Valley of Chrome, like
rose petals and ticker tape and gun oil.

I hope you’ll share some of your thoughts and favorite political poems with us.

15 replies »

  1. Covenant was powerful! Wow!

    Maybe political poetry makes good poetry because of the passions and emotional energy involved. Some of my best writing comes not when I’m contemplative but when I’m pissed and overly sarcastic and caustic – plain irreverent.

    Here is the only one I can think of that is readily available. I may try to find an original later.

    by Antony Solomon:

    Why do you fear his

  2. Thanks, and thanks for the Solomon poem, which I didn’t know. You’re right about “Covenant” – I was mad, and still am, and see little hope that it will change. But I got to thinking how the anger I felt and that I know was boiling in so many others, and I tried to imagine how it could possible not lead to violence.

    I’m still not sure I can answer that.

  3. While the people feeling this boiling anger may not be violent, those stoking that anger are not averse to it. It is a common theme, really: The nice, peaceful guy is backed into the corner and lashes out or has to resort to violence to achieve what is ultimately seen, rightly, as justice. I guess that is taking the fight to the oppressor in on their terms. Perhaps the other option is to take the fight to them on your own terms; I prefer these terms: Agorism

  4. Well, maybe it’s my last post, but Bob Dylan gives us one I think we can at least acknowledge as powerful lyrics even if one feels they don’t pass the smell test for poetry:

    Bob Dylan

    Masters Of War

    Come you masters of war
    You that build all the guns
    You that build the death planes
    You that build all the bombs
    You that hide behind walls
    You that hide behind desks
    I just want you to know
    I can see through your masks.

    You that never done nothin’
    But build to destroy
    You play with my world
    Like it’s your little toy
    You put a gun in my hand
    And you hide from my eyes
    And you turn and run farther
    When the fast bullets fly.

    Like Judas of old
    You lie and deceive
    A world war can be won
    You want me to believe
    But I see through your eyes
    And I see through your brain
    Like I see through the water
    That runs down my drain.

    You fasten all the triggers
    For the others to fire
    Then you set back and watch
    When the death count gets higher
    You hide in your mansion’
    As young people’s blood
    Flows out of their bodies
    And is buried in the mud.

    You’ve thrown the worst fear
    That can ever be hurled
    Fear to bring children
    Into the world
    For threatening my baby
    Unborn and unnamed
    You ain’t worth the blood
    That runs in your veins.

    How much do I know
    To talk out of turn
    You might say that I’m young
    You might say I’m unlearned
    But there’s one thing I know
    Though I’m younger than you
    That even Jesus would never
    Forgive what you do.

    Let me ask you one question
    Is your money that good
    Will it buy you forgiveness
    Do you think that it could
    I think you will find
    When your death takes its toll
    All the money you made
    Will never buy back your soul.

    And I hope that you die
    And your death’ll come soon
    I will follow your casket
    In the pale afternoon
    And I’ll watch while you’re lowered
    Down to your deathbed
    And I’ll stand over your grave
    ‘Til I’m sure that you’re dead.

  5. Yes, “Covenant” is a knock-out. Begs to be read aloud at a slam or some other venue.

    I go to an open mike night once a month where I keep re-learning just how popular poetry and slams are. (I don’t personally read; my son does.)

    Man, there’s some incredible young talent out there.

  6. Pingback:
  7. lol! Covenant is too poetic to work in slam, but it would be a strong piece read aloud. Who cares if it’s memorized?

    When Bush was first elected I used to read Auden’s Doomsday Song and hs Song of the Old Soldier. I mean how prophetic was this:

    “George, you old Emperor, How did you get in the army?…But whoops, here comes His Idleness, buttoning his uniform; Just in tidy time to massacre the Innocents. He’s come home to roost in the army…”

  8. Oh, no! Sad day…I was looking up Grace Paley’s “Fathers” to post as one of the most effective recent political poems and see that Grace has died this week, at age 84. Good bye to a great writer, poet, activist and teacher. The below poem was also published in the New Yorker.

    GRACE PALEY: Published by the Feminist Press. OK. This poem is called “Fathers.”
    Fathers are
    more fathering
    these days they have
    accomplished this by
    being more mothering
    what luck for them that
    women’s lib happened then
    the dream of new fathering
    began to shine in the eyes
    of free women and was irresistible
    on the New York subways
    and the mass transits
    of other cities one may
    see fatherings of many colors
    with their round babies on
    their laps this may also
    happen in the countryside
    these scenes were brand-new
    exciting for an old woman who
    had watched the old fathers
    gathering once again in
    familiar Army camps and com-
    fortable war rooms to consider
    the necessary eradication of
    the new fathering fathers
    (who are their sons) as well
    as the women and children who
    will surely be in the way.

  9. The Death of Joy Gardner

    They put a leather belt around her
    13 feet of tape and bound her
    Handcuffs to secure her
    And only God knows what else,
    She’s illegal, so deport her
    Said the Empire that brought her
    She died,
    Nobody killed her
    And she never killed herself.
    It is our job to make her
    Return to Jamaica
    Said the Alien Deporters
    Who deports people like me,
    It was said she had a warning
    That the officers were calling
    On that deadly July morning
    As her young son watched TV.

    An officer unplugged the phone
    Mother and child were now alone
    When all they wanted was a home
    A child watch Mummy die,
    No matter what the law may say
    A mother should not die this way
    Let human rights come into play
    And to everyone apply.
    I know not of a perfect race
    I know not of a perfect place
    I know this is not a simple case
    Of Yardies on the move,
    We must talk some Race Relations
    With the folks from immigration
    About this kind of deportation
    If things are to improve.

    Let it go down in history
    The word is that officially
    She died democratically
    In 13 feet of tape,
    That Christian was over here
    Because pirates were over there
    The Bible sent us everywhere
    To make Great Britain great.
    Here lies the extradition squad
    And we should all now pray to God
    That as they go about their job
    They make not one mistake,
    For I fear as I walk the streets
    That one day I just may meet
    Officials who may tie my feet
    And how would I escape.

    I see my people demonstrating
    And educated folks debating
    The way they’re separating
    The elder from the youth,
    When all they are demanding
    Is a little overstanding
    They too have family planning
    Now their children want the truth.
    As I move around I am eyeing
    So many poets crying
    And so many poets trying
    To articulate the grief,
    I cannot help but wonder
    How the alien deporters
    (As they said to press reporters)
    Can feel absolute relief.

    Benjamin Zephaniah

  10. Zee: some very worthy additions. I hadn’t heard about Paley’s death – thanks for a fitting send-off.

    Elaine: this is a timely contribution. I wonder how many similar poems are going to be written in the US before we get our immigration issues sorted out….