P O E T I C L I C E N S E
Notes on Poetry, Poems, and Poets
P O E T I C L I C E N S E
Notes on Poetry, Poems, and Poets
No.10 - March 2017
“News That Stays News: On Poetry & Politics”
by David Graham
One of Ezra Pound’s best remarks was his pithy definition of literature as “news that stays news.” This maxim has been floating around my brain a lot lately as I’ve wrestled with the extraordinary controversies and complexities of my nation’s current political situation. Like many of my fellow citizens recently, I’ve found myself reading poetry for solace, confirmation, distraction, protest, and inspiration. Since art is intimately linked to community and culture, it’s natural to seek out poetry when the political order is challenged. Poetry has many purposes, including preaching to the choir when the choir may need some uplift. Nothing unusual or wrong with that. Many of us tend to turn to poetry at moments of crisis or special significance—personal as well as public.
But if you’re weary of current political arguments, don’t worry. You’re not alone in that, lord knows. I hasten to reassure you that the name of our current President will not appear in what follows, nor any reference to the recent election cycle. In fact, I’d like to focus mainly on examples distant from us in time or place, in order to get at why I believe Pound’s definition is not only deeply true but a source of considerable comfort, at least for me.
Folks who dislike political poetry will complain that too much of it just isn’t very good as poetry, however admirable the sentiments expressed. So many ways to go wrong: it’s too smug, shrill, simplistic, self-righteous; it requires too much explanation; or it’s too little interested in the gray areas, the doubts and complexities of mature political engagement. Fair enough: a lot of it is indeed weak in such ways. But we tend to conveniently forget that most poetry throughout history—on any theme—has been mediocre and unmemorable. The average poem, by definition, will always be, well, average. We remember Walt Whitman today for the very good reason that he wrote striking, brilliant poems that still speak to us. But what of his perfectly competent contemporaries, such as Henry Howard Brownell or Alice Cary, who enjoyed some renown in their time? They have long since faded from the collective memory.
We forget as well most of the minor poems of great poets. Consider John Milton’s “On the New Forcers of Conscience Under the Long Parliament,” a fiercely partisan poem from 1646. What are we to make of lines like these?:
. . . Taught ye by mere A.S. and Rotherford?
Men whose Life, Learning, Faith, and pure intent
Must now be nam’d and printed Heretics
By shallow Edwards and Scotch what d’ye call:
But we do hope to find out all your tricks,
Your plots and packing worse than those of Trent. . . .
How many contemporary readers, outside of a graduate seminar, are going to wade through the page of footnotes needed in order to decipher that passage? Whatever its merits of sound and poetic craft, whatever its value to its contemporary audience, this poem has not followed Pound’s guideline. Thus it long since became old news. I’m not suggesting that poems like Milton’s are without merit. As noted, sometimes preaching to the choir is precisely what’s needed, to rally people for the cause and nurture solidarity. Milton’s intended audience surely caught all those references, and not all poetry has to aim for the ages.
But it’s also not the case that political poems inevitably fade into obscurity. Some of the best of them can live for a very long time. We needn’t know much about the tribulations of Irish politics and history, for instance, to appreciate Yeats’s acid couplet from 1938:
Parnell came down the road, he said to a cheering man:
“Ireland shall get her freedom and you still break stone.”
We don’t even have to know who Parnell was, though some historical context will certainly deepen the poem’s effect. Yeats, as he so often did, was able to find the universal within the particulars of the Irish struggle for independence. Is Yeats’s poem therefore better than Milton’s? I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I would say it strikes me more forcefully, and that such poems inevitably do have a better chance of standing the test of time.
The same is true of many poems throughout history and across cultures. American poet Sarah Cleghorn’s mordant epigram from 1917 on the evils of child labor, like Yeats’s couplet, makes its particular point with a clarity and bite that resonates sharply a century later:
The golf links lies so near the mill
That, almost every day
The laboring children can look out
And see the men at play.
Likewise with the classic Chinese poets of the Sung dynasty, who existed in a world that contemporary Americans would find very unfamiliar indeed. Yet look how well Su Tung-p'o’s sarcastic lyric can be applied to people we see in the news today:
On the Birth of his Son
Families, when a child is born
Want it to be intelligent.
I, through intelligence,
Having wrecked my whole life,
Only hope the baby will prove
Ignorant and stupid.
Then he will crown a tranquil life
By becoming a Cabinet Minister.
(Translation by Arthur Waley.)
The contemporary American poet John Balaban would surely agree. In his 1997 poem “Reading the News and Thinking of the T’ang Poets” he meditates on wars that occurred over a thousand years and half a world away:
Before the rebels took Ch'ang-an,
Tu Fu escaped the fabled city
where Christian, Jew, and Manichaean
held court with Buddhists. The Emperor,
who wrote lyrics and composed, had fled.
Months later, crossing moonlit fields
stippled bright with human bones,
Tu Fu wrote that poetry is useless,
in a poem alive these thousand years.
“Today our news is much the same,” Balaban muses, mentioning Rwanda and Srebrenica, names which will someday need footnoting, if they don’t already. Yet the poem ends on a note of precarious hope. It’s a highly qualified, conditional hope, but hope nonetheless: even in the face of atrocity, the rhythms of both poetry and the human heart “could heal, if heard”:
"Blood is smeared on bush and grass,"
yet poetry persists through slaughter,
as if the systoles in our raging hearts
held rhythms that could heal, if heard.
African American poet Robert Hayden, meditating on the role of art during the late 1960s, a time of great political unrest in many ways resembling our own, makes a point similar to Balaban in his poem “Monet’s Waterlilies”:
Today as the news from Selma and Saigon
poisons the air like fallout,
I come again to see
the serene great picture that I love.
Here space and time exist in light
the eye like the eye of faith believes.
The seen, the known
dissolve in iridescence, become
illusive flesh of light
that was not, was, forever is.
O light beheld as through refracting tears.
Here is the aura of that world
each of us has lost.
Here is the shadow of its joy.
Students today might need a footnote to explain the implications of “Selma and Saigon”; but I would argue that the poem as a whole works without any glossing, and thus remains fresh, news that is still news.
For me there is something profoundly sustaining in being reminded that, however horrible our current political situation may seem, there are echoes to be found throughout history, that with the help of poetry and other art, “the eye like the eye of faith” can nonetheless believe in and seek to reclaim joy, however much it may lie in the shadows today.
©2017 David Graham
Editor's Note: If you would like to write to David about this article, his email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org