Rachel Galvin is a graduate student in Comparative Literature at Princeton University, where she studies twentieth century poetry. She has been a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and Hedgebrook. An essay on Octavio Paz appears in the current issue of World Literature Today, and her poems and translations appear in journals such as Gulf Coast, Spinning Jenny, Paintbrush, Del Sol Review, and Nimrod.


The politician wants men to know how to die courageously;

the poet wants men to live courageously.

—Italian poet Salvatore Quasimodo, Nobel lecture, 1959

Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the relationship between politics and poetic protest has taken on fresh urgency for American readers and writers. “I suspect the writers know in their hearts how ineffectual poetry is in greater American society,” W. S. Di Piero wrote in Poetry magazine in October 2003. He was commenting on the Poets Against the War movement and updating Dana Gioia’s plaint made in the controversial 1991 essay, “Can Poetry Matter?” In it, Gioia asserts that it is a “difficult task to marry the Muse happily to politics,” given that poets lack a role in the broader culture and therefore do not have the confidence to create public speech.

Why is it that in this country poetry is viewed as separate from the business of the nation? Certainly this is an Anglophone peculiarity. In Latin America, José Martí, one of the region’s most beloved poets, led the movement to liberate Cuba from colonial domination. The Nicaraguan poet and priest Ernesto Cardenal was engaged in the Sandinista revolution and later served as his country’s Minister of Culture. The Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda was a diplomat, and a senator, and joined the ranks of Spanish poets such as Federico García Lorca and Miguel de Unamuno, who spoke out against General Franco during the Spanish Civil War. Both Lorca and Unamuno lost their lives as a consequence of their Republican sympathies.

In France, Paul Éluard, René Char, and Robert Desnos wrote dissenting

poetry while fighting for the Résistance. In Italy, Quasimodo and

Cesare Pavese were repressed for denouncing the regime under which

they lived, as were Russian and Polish poets such as Ossip Mandelstam,

Anna Akhmatova, Wislawa Szymborska, and Czeslaw Milosz.

Contemporary Middle Eastern poets such as Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, Nizar

al-Qabbani, Adonis, Ghazi al-Gosaibi, and Mahmoud Darwish have

embraced the idea of committed literature, or a literature engagée, as

Sartre termed it.

And yet, in the Anglophone West, poets ranging from W. H. Auden to W.

B. Yeats are invoked for their epithets that warn against involving

politics in poetry. Both poets were cited repeatedly in the wake of

the White House poetry debacle of February 2003, when Laura Bush

canceled her symposium on “Poetry and the American Voice” after she

learned that some of the poets on her guest list refused to attend in

protest against the impending war. Sam Hamill, poet and founding

editor of Copper Canyon Press, intended to present her with a petition

and a compilation of protest poetry. Laura Bush’s spokeswoman said

that it would be “inappropriate to turn a literary event into a

political forum.” The conflict helped spark Hamill’s creation of the

Poets Against the War movement.

Media accounts of the movement often quote Auden’s line “Poetry makes

nothing happen,” or three lines from Yeats: “I think it better that in

times like these / A poet keep his mouth shut, for in truth / We have

no gift to set a statesman right.” It is not accurate to invoke these

poets or their words as emblems of the apolitical poetry camp without

recognizing that each in his own way led a profoundly political

existence. Yeats aided the national cause in the uprising against

British colonial power and later served as Senator for the newly freed

Republic of Ireland. He rejected the aestheticism of “art for art’s

sake,” declaring, “Literature must be the expression of conviction,

and be the garment of noble emotion, and not an end in itself.”

And in fact, Auden’s poem—an elegy for Yeats—concludes by exhorting

the poet to “follow right”:

With the farming of a verse

Make a vineyard of the curse,

Sing of human unsuccess

In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart

Let the healing fountain start,

In the prison of his days

Teach the free man how to praise.

Auden, who traveled to Spain to support the Republican cause during

the Spanish Civil War, argued in 1939 that “In so far as poetry, or

any other of the arts, can be said to have an ulterior purpose, it is,

by telling the truth, to disenchant and disintoxicate.”

Acting on their beliefs often led Auden and Yeats to the dynamic

center of public life. Each remained wary of the traps of dogma and

expressed that caution in his work, particularly later in life. But a

political belief mixed with ambivalence and pessimism is nonetheless a

political belief. The fact that it is tempered with an awareness of

human failings, foibles, and hypocrisies is the mark of a responsible

conscience—and when they appear in poetry, such complexities are the

signature of great art.

Why is it that poets today are not considered by the nation as

legitimate actors in the public sphere? What transpired in the

Anglophone literary imagination since Percy Bysshe Shelley claimed

nearly two hundred years ago that poets were the “unacknowledged

legislators of the world”? The separation created between the world of

political contingency and the world of poetry has its roots in the

early nineteenth century, when poetry began moving toward Romanticism

and the individualized, subjective lyric. Literary thinkers of the

1830s and 1840s placed the poet above and not among the people—on a

far shore well away from the public sphere. Rather than the chronicler

of public memory or the raiser of alarms, the poet was depoliticized

and cast as a “keeper of public morals,” as Betsy Erkkila writes in

Whitman the Political Poet.

Romanticism may have bequeathed an inheritance of inward-focused

lyrics and an emphasis on personal experience, but as Richard Jones

points out in Poetry and Politics, the Romantic poets had a strong

social consciousness and were concerned with “the abuses of

industrialization, the squalor and alienation of urban life, the

excitement of the French Revolution and the disillusionment that

followed.” This set of concerns was precisely what the next generation

held against them; and ultimately, the Romantic legacy would be

divorced from its political activity, and instead, the Modernists

would retain the notion of poetry as sanctified by its otherworldly


There is a notable exception mid century: While Emerson was

envisioning a poetry of transcendental truths and Poe was championing

“pure poetry,” Walt Whitman advocated a democratic poetics of open,

all-embracing forms and a politics of inclusion. “All others have

adhered to the principle that the poet and savant form classes by

themselves, above the people, and more refined than the people; I show

that they are just as great when of the people, partaking of the

common idioms, manners, the earth, the rude visage of animals and

trees, and what is vulgar,” he wrote. “Imagination and actuality must

be united.”

Whitman notwithstanding, the idea that poetry exists apart from

mundane concerns and the affairs of the nation continued to be

strengthened with the emergence of the art for art’s sake movement.

Victorian critic Matthew Arnold wrote essays calling for morally

concerned poetry that would “animate and ennoble.” In a reaction

against the political agitation of Romantic poets, he extolled

classical balance, sanity, reason, proportion, and order, and the poem

that remained independent from the realm of historical contingency.

For Arnold’s heirs, the Modernists in the wake of the Great War,

literature became a refuge, and literary criticism, a science.

The New Critical movement, which arose during the first decades of the

twentieth century, placed emphasis on the text excised from its

historical, social, and biographical context, reinforcing the division

between poetry and politics. Poets and critics such as Robert Penn

Warren, Cleanth Brooks, and Allen Tate promulgated a view of poetry as

irrevocably isolated from the grime and disarray of everyday life.

Robert Scholes calls this positioning an “elite cultural ghetto.”

“My case against the New Criticism is that it opened up too great a

space between words and deeds, and between the rhetorical and the

poetic,” Scholes writes in The Crafty Reader. “It took a

certain patrician attitude of cool detachment and made it the measure

of all good writing.” Brooks and Warren’s tome, Understanding

Poetry, codified these views and became the American poetry

textbook of choice.

This account of the segregation of literature from politics does not

tell the whole story, however. The history of American poetry is a

history of battling narratives and counter-narratives about poetic

activity itself. The twenties were marked by the High Modernist

dictates of Eliot and Pound, but Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and

Sterling Brown were also at work. The thirties saw the appearance of

Understanding Poetry, but it was also a decade that yielded a

burgeoning of political poetry and a poetry of conscience, including

that of Carl Sandburg, Muriel Rukeyser, Auden and his generation, and

the Objectivists George Oppen, Louis Zukofsky, Charles Reznikoff, and

Carl Rakosi.

The second half of the century was heralded in by the Library of

Congress’s award of the first Bollingen prize to Ezra Pound in 1948

for an expurgated version of his Pisan Cantos—that is, with some of

the virulently anti-Semitic passages excised by his publisher. The

prize was announced along with the statement that “To permit other

considerations than that of poetic achievement to sway the decision

would destroy the significance of the award and would in principle

deny the validity of that objective perception of value on which

civilized society must rest.”

An “objective perception of value” might have been the word of the

day, but other poetic currents were running at variance. The fifties

were also the decade of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” the Beats, and Black

Mountain Poets such as Charles Olson and Robert Creeley. And all of

this occurred before the explosion of political poetry in the sixties

and the seventies, when Robert Bly, Denise Levertov, and Robert Lowell

wrote in protest against the Vietnam War, Adrienne Rich and Audre

Lorde worked to re-inscribe the life of women into poetry, and poets

such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Amiri Baraka, and Nikki Giovanni were active

in the Black Arts Movement and the struggle for civil rights.

In the last quarter of the century, others such as Carolyn Forché

championed the ethical responsibility of poetry to bear witness,

claiming that all language is political. Forché said, “Vision is

always ideologically charged; perceptions are shaped a priori by our

assumptions and sensibility formed by consciousness at once social,

historical, and aesthetic.” In her anthology of twentieth century

poetry of witness, Against Forgetting, Forché calls for a

poetry of the social space, which resides between the state and the

“safe havens of the personal.”

All of the writers mentioned in this cursory enumeration have been

assailed at one time or another for voicing their political

convictions in their poetry. Granted, there is a grave difference

between dissent that is voiced within a democracy and dissent that

speaks against a totalitarian regime; repression within a democracy

does not approach the level of brutality perpetrated in a variety of

political circumstances around the globe. Nonetheless, these American

writers are laudable for striving to step out of what Edward Said

terms the nation’s “depoliticized or aestheticized submission.” This

submission, along with the fostering of xenophobia and apathy,

represents a contemporary mode of repressing the desire for democratic

participation. In his last book, Humanism and Democratic

Criticism, Said writes, “One of the hallmarks of modernity is now

at a very deep level, the aesthetic and the social need to be kept,

and are often consciously kept, in a state of irreconcilable tension.”

Since the invasion of Iraq, a symphony of voices has reasserted the

American poet’s role in the public sphere. “It’s impossible for poetry

not to be political,” Li-Young Lee said to a St. Petersburg

Times reporter. Galway Kinnell told the New York Times,

“It’s poetry’s duty and part of its role to speak out.” And Sam Hamill

says in an open letter dated June 29, 2004, “Being a citizen of the

world is political.”

Conversation elevates society and creates conditions conducive for

democracy. Poetry can fuel this democratic deliberation by

transforming the individual and the community. The poet is an

intellectual in Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci’s sense:

“Non-intellectuals do not exist,” he writes, because “there is no

human activity from which every form of intellectual participation can

be excluded: homo faber cannot be separated from homo sapiens.”

Gramsci suggests that activism, not only eloquence, is a determining

principle of the intellectual’s function “as constructor, organizer,

‘permanent persuader,’ and not just a simple orator.”

There is no escaping the forces that press against the poem, incise

themselves into it, just as there is no escaping the urgency of the

questions that rain into our homes, leaking through the roofs and

sliding under dormers. However heat-proofed the dwelling, the

questions slip into view: What does it mean that we are alive? For

what purpose do we suffer? What does it mean to be a thinking,

feeling, merely human being, as E. E. Cummings says?

“A poem floats adjacent to, parallel to, the historical moment. What

happens to us as readers when we board the poem depends upon the kind

of relation it displays towards our historical life,” Seamus Heaney

writes in The Government of the Tongue. Poetry, like all art,

is a public form, and poetry in particular is a form of public speech.

It is not separate from the world; it is made of the world, just as

our vision of the world is constituted through language. Not only

explicitly political or satiric verse, but also the lyric and the

meditative poem are modes of conversing with society.

This conversation is what humanizes the world, according to Hannah

Arendt. “However much we are affected by the things of the world,

however deeply they may stir and stimulate us, they become human for

us only when we can discuss them with our fellows,” she writes in

Men in Dark Times. “We humanize what is going on in the world

and in ourselves only by speaking of it, and in the course of speaking

of it we learn to be human.”

Every word that is recorded necessarily exists in the public sphere.

Writing and speaking are revolutionary acts because they differentiate

the speaker from those who remain in the private sphere. It is here

that the public obligations of the poetic voice come to bear. Our

dialogue—or as Yeats would say, our quarrel with ourselves—is what

maintains our humanity.

Perhaps the best way for poets to regain a place in the public sphere

today is to extract poetry from the sanctified realm that has been

designated for it by thinkers dating back to Romanticism—and to bring

the poetic utterance into the public sphere in the form of ideas,

criticism, analysis, and new poems. The responsibility of the writer

and reader in a self-aware culture is to engender engaged

participation, as Said says. Allow poetry into unexpected places.

Advocate the widening of its purveyance in the media and in the

spheres of daily travel. This is not an effort to create univocality;

on the contrary, it will increase the visibility and audibility of all

manner of dissenting ideas about poetry as well as about politics.

“Every age must strive anew to wrest tradition away from the

conformism that is working to overpower it,” Walter Benjamin writes.

One way for Americans to accomplish this is to make the effort to gain

access to other ideas, perspectives, and cultures. Reading poetry from

other national traditions can clarify our vision, provide a different

perspective on our own tradition, modes of thinking, and strategies,

and most importantly, offer another version of the human circumstance.

This is the most patriotic act of all—in the sense that our patria is

the state of being human. The reader who encounters the poem openly

and freely becomes a receptive beholder, as Martin Buber would say;

the poem is no longer viewed at arm’s length, and the reader enters

into dialogue with it.

When shades of political opinion and the complexities of human

activity and feeling are represented, solo voices turn symphonic, and

poets and other writers lay claim to their role in society. “All I

have is a voice / to undo the folded lie,” Auden writes. It is vital

to protect the right to speak freely. “This is not always a matter of

being a critic of government policy,” Said writes, “but rather of

thinking of the intellectual vocation as maintaining a state of

constant alertness, of a perpetual willingness not to let half-truths

or received ideas steer one along.”

What kind of American poetry might speak of life as it is now being

lived? A poetry that is elastic enough to contain the modern

experience of speed and stillness, as well as a sense of wonder. One

that smells of rubber, plastic, and tar, and can contain the

constellations of nanotechnology; a poetry that bears witness to the

exigencies and horrors of the political moment in which the poem, and

the poet, exists. This kind of poetry carries on speaking to the

unimagined future. It sings of a spiritualized and a politicized

vision, and it leaps into infinity. “A poet is a poet when he does not

renounce his existence in a given country, at a particular time,

defined politically,” Quasimodo writes in his “Discourse on Poetry.”

“And poetry is the liberty and truth of that time, and not abstract

modulations of sentiment.”

It is also crucial to remind the nation that the American artist has

an urgent word, is prepared to step out of the atelier and into the

street, and that as much as a pop song or a feature film, a poem can

provide a new and vital way of looking at the world—and one that is

less saturated with corporate interests. In our present age of

multimedia entertainment, poetry is an art form nearly free of

materials. It is the most portable mode of art other than singing, and

it is similar to singing: when a group of people gathers and recites

poems together, the poems are re-inspired, breathed alive, and

reinterpreted, transforming and transformed by the reciter and the


Artists are more capable than theorists or pundits in representing the

consciousness of the people, because the language of art is a language

of immediacy, of spirit, and of the transporting analogy. In his essay

“Democratic Vistas,” Whitman writes, “It is acknowledged that we of

the States are the most materialistic and money-making people ever

known. My own theory, while fully accepting this, is that we are the

most emotional, spiritualistic, and poetry-loving people also.”

This article was originally published by The Academy of

American Poets (www.poets.org) on 16 January 2005.

To comment on this piece: editors@guernicamag.com


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