‘We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us,’ wrote Keats in 1818 and it’s a widespread view, that poetry should, in his words, come ‘as naturally as the leaves to a tree’ or not at all. It should not be forcing itself or its opinions on us. Political poetry, more than any other kind, is open to this charge of stridency, of tendentiousness. When I provided a poem late last year for an anthology called Poets for Corbyn (Berfrois, 2015) or when I published my verse satire against the then coalition government, Get Real! (Rack Press, 2011) was I betraying the sacred art, degenerating into a mere propagandist?
I have a great deal of sympathy with reservations of this kind because a poem, to work as a poem, has to be true to itself, to the moment and impulse of its creation, not to any pre-conceived idea or message. A poem is often an exploration. Writing it can feel like a beginning that has no idea of how it will end. We write to surprise ourselves, to make discoveries. On the other hand, if it can be conceded that political poetry runs great risks it has also provided some of the greatest poems in the English language. Milton, Shelley and Blake would be mystified by the idea that their political poetry was some sort of lapse or betrayal of the art.
So would Andrew Marvell. One of the great political poems in the English tradition is his ‘An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland’. Marvell was an MP, friend (and defender after the Restoration) of Milton and author of many political verse satires and prose polemics against such evils as ‘popery’ (his performance in the latter making aggressive Islamophobia look like a playground thumbing of noses). He was a man with very strong opinions and took the Parliamentary side in the English Civil War but his praise of Cromwell (whose Latin Secretary he had been) is slightly less than a piece of North Korean populist exultation.
What Cromwell had just been up to in Ireland before his return is notorious still in that country but Marvell hails his hero in rather more judicious terms than we might expect from a public poem of this kind. It’s true that there is a little too much of Cromwell the man of destiny here, torn from ‘his private gardens’ to take up the political cudgels ‘And cast the Kingdome old/Into another Mold.’ Yet his defeated opponent, Charles I, is represented in a strikingly positive way. Ascending the scaffold, he ‘nothing common did or mean/Upon that memorable Scene’. This is a much celebrated passage in the poem but it is of course followed by more glorification of Cromwell in ways that make his political violence seem necessary and pragmatic: ‘The same Arts that did gain/A Pow’r, must it maintain.’
If the political poet is not exactly the instigator of political violence here, he is its cheerleader. A later political poet writing about Ireland, and its relations with its neighbour, had more doubts. In his poem ‘The Man and the Echo’ W.B. Yeats wrote, ‘Did that play of mine send out/Certain men the English shot?’ It was impossible for anyone of sensitivity, poet or non-poet, to have lived through the turbulence of early twentieth-century Ireland and remain indifferent, and Yeats was not a bystander. But his deeper concern was that political violence, once unleashed, has far-reaching negative consequences. Less sanguine than Marvell (or Stalin) about the need for draconian political action by the powerful, he reflected: ‘We had fed the heart on fantasies,/The heart’s grown brutal from the fare.’
The great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda is another example of a poet who engaged directly in the political sphere with not always happy results. His poetic praise of Stalin nearly lost him the Nobel Prize and Jorge Luis Borges, for whom the poet’s politics would have been distasteful, reportedly said: ‘I think of him as a very fine poet, a very fine poet. I don’t admire him as a man, I think of him as a very mean man.’ That seems, in fact, a rather mean comment. But the problem is that an engaged poet risks being judged by other criteria, allowing his or her art to be mangled in the process. Those poems of Seamus Heaney (notably in the collection North) that registered the realities, tensions and historical pressures of the Irish conflict did not always endear him to those on the opposite side of that divided polity. The Reverend Ian Paisley is not perhaps the literary critic whose opinions Heaney would have wished for but those opinions were certainly offered.
In his elegy, ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’, W.H. Auden took the argument in a new direction. It was not just the risks and exposures of personal political commitment that concerned him but the very utility of political poetry. How, indeed, can we judge the effectiveness of the poetry of commitment? The poem’s lines about poetry’s inability to change the world are much quoted: ‘For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives/In the valley of its making…’ I recall a TV interview, years later, in which Auden said that the only political duty of the poet was ‘to preserve the purity of the language’. I presume he meant that the poet’s first responsibility was to the art of poetry not to the striking of attitudes and who could disagree with that — unless you think a false opposition is being created here. I mean that the best political poetry is good not because it is is setting a manifesto to music but because it is good poetry. There is no reason why a poem about the miners’ strike should be any better or worse than a poem about the drowning of a cat in a tub of fishes — or a drop of dew. Everything depends on the quality of the verse, on the art of the poem; subject matter is, from one point of view, neither here nor there.
So in that sense Keats was right. In my own longer verse satires I have chosen to use tight and demanding poetic forms, like the Burns stanza, in part because I wanted to avoid a naked rant, trusting in the disciplines of artistic form to guarantee that something more was happening in those poems. But political poetry doesn’t have to be head-banging or hectoring, and the obliquities and indirections of the Eastern bloc poets during the Communist era that were forced on them by censorship allowed them both to tell truth to power and to evolve subtle and nuanced styles of writing that had an influence even in countries not under the yoke of repressive regimes. As with Marvell’s Horatian ode, political poetry doesn’t have to be cut and dried, or to have, as activists say, ‘a line’.
But a poet who fails to write in a way that is adequate to the moment risks appearing trivial. As the critic F.R. Leavis argued in New Bearings in English Poetry (1932): ‘All that we can fairly ask of the poet is that he shall show himself to have been fully alive in our time.’ That seems to me a prudently wise agenda that can embrace the vividly polemical and the subtly zeitgeist-reflecting. It endorses the view that art is serious because the artist seriously engages with his or her time. The best, we hope, are the most humane.
But it is as well to remember that there exist anthologies of Taliban poetry.