Duties of the Witness
The Calling of the Political Poet
– 1 –
Is it not the duty
of those with imagination
to try to imagine how this must feel?
I live in a democracy, where time and time again ordinary citizens have taken to the streets in vast numbers to demand change, pushing democracy slowly but steadily forward, making it more fair, more just, more democratic.
But I also live in a nation openly ruled by a wealthy elite, the infamous “1 percent,” who over the past half-century have spent millions to roll back the gains of the great people’s movements of the 20th century and exponentially increase their own wealth, power, and control.
During the same period, my government has expanded its military supremacy around the world through proxy dictators, covert wars, right-wing coups, bombers, troops, and drones – benefiting no one except the giant multinational corporations which are no more than a façade for the same wealthy 1 percent.
And since the turn of the 21st century, Republican and Democratic administrations alike have abandoned all pretense of “deterrence” to aggressively surround both Russia and China with land and sea-based first-strike nuclear forces.
Over the years I have written poems concerned with each of these assaults on democracy, human rights, and our hopes for a peaceful world. To counter the cumulative weight of arrogance and atrocity, much of my work offers hymns to resistance, glimpses of heroism, and testimonies to hope.
As always, it is the poor at home and abroad who bear the brunt of my government’s crimes against humanity, and ordinary taxpayers like me who pay for them. As a citizen, I recognize my responsibility to join others in resisting these crimes committed in my name wherever I can. And as a poet of conscience, I find them insistently surfacing in my writing as well.
For me, poetry is a way of responding to what moves me and of grappling with what really matters to me, which are often one and the same. Though I personally have escaped injury and indignity at the hands of the powerful, very little moves me as deeply and matters as much as the suffering of innocent people around the world.
Over four decades of bearing poetic witness to the struggle for a just and peaceful world, in each poem – even the ones that take a somewhat satirical twist – I have done my best to transcend the political and penetrate to the heart of what is human.
– 2 –
Poetry is an act of the imagination: not just imagination itself, but the act thereof. Poetry is imagination in action. But can poetry be activism?
“Political poetry” is usually dismissed as the practice of dragging poetry down to the level of politics – corrupt politicians, feuding parties, rigged elections – the poet as propagandist. But it also has the potential to raise politics up to the level of poetry: an act of imagination which reveals the hidden interconnections that link us all.
Imagination has more than one face, of course. The primary form it takes in the United States, from Hollywood to the New York Times bestseller list, is fantasy. The romantic fantasy of boy-meets-girl, the mythic fantasy of good-guy-vs.-bad-guy, the escapist fantasy of soap operas and sitcoms and the Broadway musical. Our culture is founded on the self-serving fantasy of “manifest destiny”: the heroic wresting of a wild continent from savages, the innate superiority of everything white, male, and “American.” Though no longer mentioned in polite company, that foundation still supports today’s reigning fantasy of the glorification of war and the triumph of the violent.
But imagination is also the root of compassion: the ability to project oneself into other people’s lives and surroundings, vicariously experience their experiences and feel their feelings. Arousing this deeper faculty of imagination, I believe, is the calling of the political poet.
Political issues like war, racism, and poverty are often reduced to numbers – statistics, demographics, polls and surveys, dollars and cents. They can also be too easily elevated to the abstract plane of principles and ethics. Political poetry can take these issues back to where they started: real people facing real situations that engulf them and those they love, raw emotion in real time, real-life tragedies and heroics.
At its best, political poetry slips past partisan attitudes and ideologies to confront us with the actual people involved in a particular issue, people on both sides of any conflict, people we may disagree with politically but can relate to emotionally. It can place us inside the skin of someone we have never met, creating an unexpected opening for a shift in our self-focused biases and priorities. It allows us to share the experience of people halfway around the world who starve or grieve or suffer or courageously resist, and begin to care about their fate.
There’s another superficial gap that imagination can help to bridge. That’s the gap between our self-centered complacency and our responsibility to others. Poetry can help to illuminate the ways we benefit from the plight of those people halfway around the world – how just sitting here enjoying our privileges helps to oppress those who manufacture and deliver our luxuries at slave wages. Our interconnection with the world’s poor isn’t just some lofty compassion. It’s culpability. It’s not just a moment of empathy, or even outrage. It’s a call to action.
– 3 –
But the poetic imagination doesn’t limit itself to the world as it is. Political poetry can conjure up a hypothetical future, a better world . . . or hell on Earth. Poetry can be prophetic, and poetry can be visionary: two more faces of imagination.
As you sow, so shall you reap. The Law of Karma, the ancient Hindu doctrine summed up so succinctly by St. Paul in his Epistle to the Galatians, holds that our daily actions are the seed of our blessings and sufferings to come. Karmic consequences are incurred not just by individuals, but by entire nations and races. So what might be the consequences of our government’s support for ruthless regimes that crush all opposition? Our taxes are paying for it, after all; our turn could be next. The prophetic imagination understands that those responsible for the murder, torture, and extralegal abduction of brown-skinned peasants or black-skinned mine workers in pursuit of profit will have no qualms about doing the same to middle-class white “Americans” as soon as it becomes profitable to do so.
I visited Nicaragua during the 1989 election campaign that ended in defeat at the polls for the Sandinista revolution – after the U.S. Congress appropriated millions to fund the right-wing opposition. I was not surprised to see Russia accused of interfering with our own political system in 2016 in support of our own right wing.
Today, the United States maintains military bases in over 70 countries, sends in troops and bombers and drones wherever it pleases, and supplies the bulk of the world’s arms and munitions. Yet we can’t keep our children safe in their schools. I do not consider this mere coincidence.
And who can possibly imagine the aftermath of a nuclear war? Somebody must, and must communicate this darkest of prophecies in language vivid enough to spark an active resistance to nuclear proliferation and war-planning, if our leaders lack the imagination to see it themselves.
But it’s difficult to stand firm and oppose the swaggering omnicidal fantasy of war and violence without an alternative vision: a just society, a fair economy, a peaceable world to come, even a global renunciation of “mutually assured destruction,” no matter how unreachable it seems. Looking back, we can see how the personal convictions of individuals – the abolitionists, the suffragettes, the Wobblies, the organizers of Gay Pride – slowly rippled out to become recognized social norms, and were eventually signed into law. These evolutionary strides, which once appeared laughably unrealistic, are gifts of the visionary imagination.
– 4 –
Poets play a vital role in any authentic living culture. Throughout the Global South, the so-called “Third World,” poets are heroes, quoted and recited and revered by ordinary folks. Poetry in Latin America or Africa tends to be political by default, either on or just below the surface, because in such places life itself is political; there is no place to hide from political realities. But the same is true among poor and working-class people everywhere. Only the moneyed classes can afford an insulating layer called “culture” to protect them from the world of hardship and brutality.
True culture – people’s culture – expresses what everyday people see and feel wherever they may be, even a refugee camp, housing project or prison, and the anguish and rage that often erupt as a result. This is why Bob Dylan and John Lennon and Bob Marley are beloved around the world: they speak for common people, not the literary intelligentsia, and never shy away from political truths. Song lyrics are the poetry of people’s culture, filling the vacuum wherever poets have abdicated the burdens of vision and prophecy.
In his essay “Leaping Up Into Political Poetry,” written in 1968, Robert Bly introduced the poetic metaphor of the leap of association: “Some poets try to write political poems impelled by hatred or fear. But these emotions are heavy, they affect the gravity of the body. What the poet needs to get up that far and bring something back are great leaps of the imagination.”
The disreputable reputation of political poets is not entirely undeserved; the temptation to be preachy and polemical often gets in the way. Hatred and fear have indeed inspired a lot of one-dimensional poetry, as have anger, self-righteousness, and hardline political dogma. But that’s not the whole story. Both popular culture and mainstream academia in the United States seem to share a subtle snobbery, slanted toward poetry that confines itself to the personal, the philosophical, the whimsical, the abstract, the esoteric – anything that does not challenge the political and economic status quo.
But poetry was once a part of everyday life here in the U.S., too. Walt Whitman’s freewheeling free verse scandalized a highly literate nation accustomed to regimented meter and rhyme. His subject matter was equally outrageous, ranging from politics to sexuality to the daily lives of working folk. But in the 20th century, poetry became increasingly academic, enamored of classical allusions, intellectual abstraction, and the self-obsessed “confessional” mode. Until the political upheavals of the 1960s, the poets celebrated by the literary establishment were often unknown to working people, disconnected from ordinary lives and struggles, uninvolved in the great popular movements for reform.
Step into the world of the poetry slam or hip-hop spoken word, the cutting edge of poetry today, and the rules of academia do not apply. Many of these poets are using the tools of language to condense their experience of injustice and inequality into poetry that is unabashedly political. They join a long line of rebels and upstarts, the progeny of Whitman: Carl Sandburg, Muriel Rukeyser, Kenneth Rexroth, Thomas McGrath, David Ignatow, Meridel le Sueur, Thomas Merton, Allen Ginsberg, Etheridge Knight, Denise Levertov, Amiri Baraka, Audre Lorde, Robert Bly, Galway Kinnell, Carolyn Forché . . . and many others unknown to me, I’m sure.
When I leaf through a copy of The New Yorker looking for poetry, almost without exception I find poets at play, writing obscurely about trivialities, showing off their technical brilliance while dancing adroitly around substance – entertaining themselves, it seems, at my expense. I find that ironic, considering the in-depth political reporting often found in those same pages.
Word games, syntax puzzles, and clever special effects might help to sell a poem to The New Yorker – the pinnacle of poetic prestige – but what is the poet trying to say? What is the poem about, what does it mean? Not mean in the sense of a specific, paraphraseable meaning, but in the sense that “it really meant something to me.” Like so many writers of polished fiction, these poets seem intent on distracting readers from unpleasant realities, rather than waking them up to their potential as grown-up human beings who share a world with the rest of us. And unfortunately, waking people up grows more urgent by the day.
– 5 –
I have never consciously set out to write a “political poem.” Like the other “political poets” I’ve mentioned, I write all kinds of poetry. I have published a whole book of hitchhiking poems and another about my experiences camping out with the Rainbow Family in the National Forests. A collection of “Earth Poetry” is now in progress, chronicling my lifelong love for the natural world. Every poem travels the same route to arrive on the page. When I see or experience something that stirs me deeply, a line or a phrase will sometimes pop into my head. If I capture it on paper – the only literary discipline I practice – it might become the seed of a new poem. Calling me “political” only accuses me of paying attention: not just to butterflies and waterfalls and sunsets but to gritty and painful realities as well.
My work varies widely in form, style, and technique, though I have never composed a song, performed in a slam, or attempted the emphatic rhythm and rhyme of hip-hop. My teachers are the elder poets of my generation, especially Robert Bly and Galway Kinnell, who broke the cultural taboo in the 1960s to raise their voices against Jim Crow discrimination and the Vietnam War.
But my development as a poet took a breathless leap forward when I discovered Bly’s translations of Spanish-speaking poets like César Vallejo, Juan Ramón Jiménez, Federico García Lorca, and Pablo Neruda. Even in translation, their work conveys the politically-charged atmospheres of their respective homelands in a language of hallucinatory brilliance, surreal metaphor, and wrenching emotion. As a child of North American privilege, I do not pretend to share their experience, but their leaps of imagination spurred my own attempts to new heights. Their concentrated intensity reveals much about the human reality behind political abstractions like “oppression” and “imperialism.”
My sense of interconnection with the real human beings at the receiving end of oppression and imperialism was jolted awake by two peace delegations I was invited to join. My visits to Nicaragua in 1989 and Colombia in 2003 were experiences too powerful to describe in any other form but poetry. From each of these journeys I brought home notes which I pieced together into a chapbook-length poem, each reprinted now as a section of this book. It’s up to you to judge the authenticity of the translation.
– 6 –
Many of my political poems date back to what may now seem ancient history: the Vietnam War (which ended just as I reached draft age in 1975), the Reagan administration’s covert wars in Central America, the anti-apartheid and Nuclear Freeze movements of the 1980s. Unfortunately, none of these issues have truly receded into the past.
My government continues to bomb and invade new Vietnams under the flimsiest of pretexts. Under the Obama administration, which I voted for, a C.I.A. coup toppled a democratically elected government in Honduras. My taxes support a heartless apartheid regime in Israel. And the threat of nuclear war, though it has faded into the background of our daily political melodrama, hasn’t loomed so dangerously high since the days of the Cold War. The poetic imagination bears witness to what is happening down here on the ground, but it also soars high above, watching the repeating patterns of history.
I have had the honor of performing my poems at political gatherings across the Southeast and beyond. These have included the annual vigils outside the “School of the Americas” at Fort Benning, a “One Billion Rising” rally opposing violence against women around the world, and protests against nuclear weapons at Kings Bay Trident submarine base on the Georgia coast and Oak Ridge nuclear weapons plant in Tennessee. One of the most memorable took place one night in the downtown park re-named “Troy Davis Park” by Occupy Atlanta, via “the human microphone” – the crowd around me calling out each line after me so the people in the back could hear.
I have written poems in response to news events like the school shootings in Parkland, Florida, the taxpayer-funded bailout of the mega-banks, the fall of the Twin Towers and the subsequent invasion of Iraq. I have also written poems inspired by acts of resistance, including The Ribbon, a beautifully creative response to the prospect of nuclear annihilation, and the student occupation of Northwestern University’s administrative plaza to protest the school’s investments in South Africa.
Both of those inspirational events took place in 1985, way back in the previous century. But according to Bly’s essay, events – whether inspiring or appalling – are the occasion, not the source of the poem. “The political activists in the literary world are wrong,” he insists. “They try to force political poetry out of poets by pushing them more deeply into events, making them feel guilt if they don’t abandon privacy. But the truth is that the political poem comes out of the deepest privacy.”
I think what he is saying is that first and foremost, political poetry is simply poetry. Political poets tap the same sources of inspiration and employ the same variety of form and technique that all poets do. Compassion, vision, and prophecy do not spring from the times we live in, from revolutionary theories of capital and labor, from analyses of neocolonialism or class war, but from what persists from generation to generation in the heart and conscience of each individual. Political poetry is the human in me, responding to the human in those caught up in today’s headlines, reaching out to the human in you.
Can poets have a measurable impact on political reality? I don’t know – and if I did, it would have no measurable impact on my motive for writing. We live in times when all of us are called to do what we can to defend the defenseless Earth and its innocents. But Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, Chilean songwriter Victor Jara, and his North American counterpart Joe Hill might answer if they could. They all died a martyr’s death because someone in power feared the power of poetry.
But to question the usefulness of politically-aware poetry is itself an academic exercise. Just use your imagination. Imagine how different the world might be if poets had played the kind of role in U.S. popular culture they have played in the poorer nations that are pawns of U.S. foreign policy. If North American poets had filled the literary journals and anthologies with heartfelt compassion for the victims of lynchings and death squads and drones. If they had prophetically reminded us that what happens to nameless foreigners might also happen to us; if they had inspired us with the vision of a world founded on mutual respect across the boundaries of race and class and nationality. If they had not been content just to write, but had looked across those boundaries and built a bridge of imagery and metaphor in the words they chose. As some in fact did. But not nearly enough.
Is it not the duty
of those with understanding
to try to understand where this must lead?
= + =
* Originally written as the Introduction to an unpublished manuscript of political poems, Honk If You’re Awake! Opening and closing lines are from my poem “Duties of the Witness.”