The poet Anna Akhmatova (1889 – 1966). Her work "Requiem" was a formal achievement, bearing witness to Stalinist persecution.  

The poet Anna Akhmatova (1889 – 1966). Her work "Requiem" was a formal achievement, bearing witness to Stalinist persecution.  

Mountains fall before this grief,
A mighty river stops its flow,
But prison doors stay firmly bolted
Shutting off the convict burrows
And an anguish close to death.
Fresh winds softly blow for someone,
Gentle sunsets warm them through; we don't know this,
We are everywhere the same, listening
To the scrape and turn of hateful keys
And the heavy tread of marching soldiers. 
(Anna Akhmatova, "Requiem")

For the Russian-American poet, it is hard to imagine the poetical and political as neatly separable. If robust politics is vital for growth in society, then robust poetry is not blind to the political dimensions of society. The ties between poetry and politics persevered in the visions of poets like Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Mayakovsky, Isaiah, Dante, Neruda, Baraka, Melville, Rich, Ginsberg, Sinclair. As Neruda said, "… I am simply a writer. A free writer who loves freedom. I love the people. I belong to the people because I am one of them.” This sensibility found expression in lines like "Stone of the sun, pure among territories, / Spain veined with bloods and metals, blue and victorious, / proletariat of petals and bullets, / alone alive, somnolent, resounding."

For these poets, poetry was not a political megaphone, but an aesthetic vision of truth, exposing, among other things, how the political operates. Akhmatova's poetry may have paradoxically been condemned as "apolitical" by Soviets for not formally supporting Soviet slogans, but landmark poems like "Requiem" unquestionably bore witness to the concrete terror of political persecution. They are some of the greatest achievements in poetry of witness. In fact, as Mandelstam's execution shows, it seems she avoided publishing the poem until 1953 for strategic reasons of safety. In the Euroasian continent, too often publish can mean perish. 

For the sake of clarity, I will define politics as the following: the relationships between people and systems of power (whether governmental or more unofficial cultural power). This also means the abuse of power recognized by its systemic domination of a group or individual: authoritarianism, censorship, fascism, patriarchy, nationalism, classism, heterosexism, and racism. Poetry of witness testifies to an experience of political scope: the use or abuse of this power; it presents a vision expansive enough to show how something really works. It is close to Bob Dylan's response to TIME magazine about truth: 

"Really the truth is just a plain picture. A plain picture of, of, lets say a tramp vomitting into the sewer you know? And then and uh, next door to the picture you know, is Mr. Rockerfeller or you know, Mr. C.W. Jones on a subway going to work, uh you know, any kind of picture."

But the range of styles and perspectives is vast. The personal and political are complicated. For many years, I struggled to describe my approach to the political in poetry, but Pound and Keats helped me. It related to values, to a sense for right and wrong in the world. Pound's essays on an artist's responsibility to make "evil" appear "ugly" and "good" appear "beautiful" saved me in a very controversial way. It is still hard to understand how such a bright insight into the ethics of poetry was produced by a poet who once identified with Mussolini's fascism. Keats, on the other hand, helped me see musicality and imagination are not separable from truth and reality: truth is beauty, beauty is truth. One of the greatest expressions of this was in Oscar Wilde's Preface to The Picture of Dorian Grey:

Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.
Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope...
The nineteenth century dislike of Realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.
The nineteenth century dislike of Romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.

Still the poetical and political is a controversial topic. Many poets like W.H. Auden, Basil Bunting, and David Lehman have emphasized that poetry is not about political truth-telling, but a play of language, employing craft in service of the most advanced form of language. For this group, craft is central and the political interest is bias that dilutes a pure aesthetic experience. Poetry understood in political terms, or political ideas emerging in a work is seen as dangerous. The fact that art could risk being flattened by politics was something I agreed with, but I also thought art has important political implications. Some poets like Neruda, Rich, Baraka, Lorde offered a different view. They suggested apolitical poetry, or poetry blind to political horror is privileged, revealing the poet's luxury of formal play for formal sake.

"I speak here of poetry as the revelation or distillation of experience, not the sterile word play that, too often, the white fathers distorted the word poetry to mean... For women, then, poetry is not a luxury." (Audre Lorde, "Poetry is Not a Luxury")


For them, poets must be responsible to both form and lived experience, craft and the world. Even Brodsky once suggested that aesthetics is the mother of ethics because there are limits in the natural world. For example, the color wheel, one of the artist's central tools, has limits. The idea that poetry has a responsibility to the ways of the world, to truth, is currently understood as "poetry of witness." You can find aspiring to "poetry of witness" in Carolyn Forche's anthology Against Forgetting as well as journals like Cortland Review, Witness, Muzzle, rock & sling, Matador Review, and Winter Tangerine. For poets of witness, technical maturity and ethical maturity, the political and personal, are not mutually exclusive. Here, Brodsky's poem "Bosnia Tune" finds consonance between form and the the suffering of the world, the aesthetic and truth:

As you pour yourself a scotch,
crush a roach, or check your watch,
as your hand adjusts your tie,
people die.

In the towns with funny names,
hit by bullets, cought in flames,
by and large not knowing why,
people die.

For years, I was convinced any resistance to the political in poetry (including concerns about the flatness of political language) was suspect, status-quo and dangerous. Looking back, my view has changed, but only to a certain extent. What remains: the inseparability of politics and poetry. I am still convinced it cannot and should not be marginalized. And I would argue this is because my Russian immigrant status made me be aware of something important. Whether through family history or bullying in high school, I know what it means to be deemed separate, outsider, and abused for things outside my control. But at the same time, my honesty forces me to admit that I enjoy privilege as a white male. In other words, through these experiences, I began to uncover my complex sense of place in the relations of the world. 

But now I see I was missing two important things:

  1. Letting conventional politics (and political language) drive the work of art can lead to impoverished poetry, lacking perceptiveness and imagination. Reality includes the political, but reality surpasses the political: here, our immediate relationship to a situation, a time and place, comes first. Forche understands it this way: The poetry of witness reclaims the social from the political and in so doing defends the individual against illegitimate forms of coercion. If one is an open, honest, responsible poet, and if the artistic process is trusted, good "poetry of witness" emerges organically from the breadth and depth of the artistic vision. The open, responsible artist listens deeply, explores and understands his/her relationship to the world and the range of emotional textures. The inclusiveness of the artist will be curious about the experiences of others while being honest to the dimensions of their limited vantage point. Through the skillful use of craft, the poet may uncover insight into the interrelations of power and abuse of power. At its best, what is left is a poem that offers a direct, sensory experience, revealing the tensions of power as well as our potential to transform the ugly abuse of power into the beautiful use of power. The work is best when the form allows the experience to speaks for itself, when the craft most precisely serves the whole experience. 
  2. While I agree that political language can be impoverished, I do not see innovative language itself (without any connection to the larger witness to truth) as the fullest expression of poetry. The poet who does not see their art as a part of the struggles of larger society may risk irresponsibility, abandoning their duty to bear witness to truth. If the artist is blind to the struggles of his/her neighbor, his/her vision risks being narrow and sometimes even lopsided; the art may be technically successful, but it may distort the truth of how their artistic vision is inescapably connected to power, privilege and the abuse of power. Of course this brings up the difference of bearing witness to experiences that are not yours. Here the response should not be cautious avoidance, but a radical honesty of one's social location and how power is functioning through it. As Claudia Rankine writes in Whiteness and Racial Imaginary: "This is not to say that the only solution would be to extend the imagination into other identities, that the white writer to be antiracist must write from the point of view of characters of color. It’s to say that a white writer’s work could also think about, expose, that racial dynamic...Perhaps the way to expand those limits is not to “enter” a racial other but instead to inhabit, as intensely as possible, the moment in which the imagination’s sympathy encounters its limit." 

This is the intuition I always had as a poet, but struggled and still struggle to express best. For me, good poetry has always offered, not just good form, but flashes of truth, the fullness of a human situation, uncovered through the formal effects of language. Like Kendrick's lyrics or "decolonize this place" stickers, it has role as an activist tool as much as a cellphone revealing police brutality. But it works through a three part process: 1) the materials are words, words with a range of sensory and intellectual properties: images, sounds, colors, concepts, textures, smells, tastes etc., 2) the form is the shape the materials take, how the words are arranged to produce the intended emotional effects, 3) the artistic vision is the emotional insight into human experience, it either succeeds or fails to honor the complexity of the world. The poet's openness is central: it is a demonstration of their ethical maturity to accept uncomfortable information and bring it to its corresponding aesthetic form. 

The best of our spiritual traditions and the latest scientific evidence suggest the inherent interconnectedness of all of life. If this is the case, it is impossible, and I would argue, dangerous to stand outside politics. We must be aware of how power and abuse of power figures into our artistic vision. Ignorance, complacency, and apathy are not without consequences and these consequences have demonstrated themselves in history countless times (i.e. "the banality of evil" by Hannah Arendt). 

Of course poems are not absolute. The poem is not The Fullness of truth, but it is a fullness: a dimension, a window into part of the Fullness of truth. If the poet is open, honest and responsible, the completed poem is a gift to the broader world; it has political implications, and by being a compelling bodily experience, it has implications in all spheres of life. It is as an art object, which, in certain environments, comes alive as a vision you can participate in. It becomes a new feature in the fabric of culture. The poem becomes part of the reader's body and it is carried into the world. As Rich wrote, "poetry isn't revolution, but a way of knowing why it must come."

A SHORT SPEECH FOR MY FRIENDS
Amiri Baraka

A political art, let it be
tenderness, low strings the fingers
touch, or the width of autumn
climbing wider avenues, among the virtue
and dignity of knowing what city
you’re in, who to talk to, what clothes
—even what buttons—to wear. I address

                                                             / the society
                                                          the image, of
                                                         common utopia.

                                                                        / The perversity
                                                            of separation, isolation,
after so many years of trying to enter their kingdoms,
now they suffer in tears, these others, saxophones whining
through the wooden doors of their less than gracious homes.
The poor have become our creators. The black. The thoroughly
ignorant.

                  Let the combination of morality
and inhumanity
begin.