The Political and the Poetic

My most respected poetry teachers and colleagues warned me away from writing “political poetry.” I secretly loved that these same individuals, while staying away from writing about politics—or at least masterfully disguising their political poems—happened to be quite willing to discuss the latest white house offerings and right-wing politician scandals, especially over dark beer in pleather booths at all-night diners, embellishing the conversation here or there with personal stories. And I myself can’t resist reading posts about politics on Facebook. It’s like eating caramel popcorn; you just can’t stop, and pretty soon you have a terrible sugar high.

So at a January retreat with my writing group, over quinoa and fruit, I brought this up as something I was struggling with. “I need to stop reading all those political articles on Facebook,” I said. A pained expression must have wrinkled my face as I considered the time and writing energy those articles ate up. We all stared for a minute, out the window or at the fire, considering the junk foods of our various writing diets. We might have been thinking our own versions of the same thing: But politics is an important food to my work!

For me it’s not the only “food” though, and arguably, not the most healthy. So as a temporary measure I resolved to stay away from the “Woman Fired Over Breastfeeding” and “Republicans Vow to Restore Family Values and Repeal Obamacare” headlines to make a return to my library books, gathering dust.

Beautiful & Pointless, a book by David Orr on modern poetry, was due first, so the Monday after the writing retreat I set out to read it. Lo and behold, the second chapter is, “The Political.” That’s one of those funny coincidences that make you believe in magic and writing groups and signs from whoever-you-believe-in (as my high school chemistry teacher, Mr. Jarl, used to say).

Orr writes, “Even a responsible American citizen-poet has a flicker of the old Romantic-Symbolist fire in his belly, and this may cause him to feel a connection to contemporary politics that is often no less intense than Ezra Pound’s affection for Il Duce. When a contemporary poet like Jorie Graham takes on global warming—as she does in her 2008 book, Sea Change—that’s more or less what’s going on.”

I’m not going to be getting away from politics, am I? I guess I can come to terms with that. If you’re an aspiring writer, I hope you can, too. All things in moderation, of course.

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