These are just some disconnected rough notes. In them I'm not thinking of
any one's poetry in particular.
Surely when Confucius spoke of the need to withdraw from politics he was
speaking of a very different situation, he was speaking of or to poets who
were themselves politicians, public servants, and whose poetry was a factor
of that service, and to whom therefore to retire from this work was to
retire from their livelihood, ambitions, and sense of purpose. This would
not be an act lightly undertaken, but a bitter recourse in a desperate
situation. The case of Du Fu strikes me as obvious. The point is anyway
that they were clearly "in" politics from the start in a a very real and
serious way, and this empowered them to withdraw from it when necessary.
I don't see that we inhabit politics in any comparable way. I don't thus
see that we have either right or obligation to speak "politically" other
than the right or obligation any citizen has to speak out against
injustice-- but by what necessity does that become a poetical speaking?
Surely there are languages and procedures for doing that which have nothing
to do with poetry and are all the more likely to be heard or effective
thereby? Why should poetry want to do badly what prose can do better?
Jon's point was very important about how the poet is no longer in a
position to command political attention, how even very recently in east
European countries which have retained a more stable sense of attached
values, the poet achieves a public presence which gives him/her the chance,
if not the right, to be a political force through poetry. Compared with
this the contemporary poet here is addressing the air. It's not necessarily
a sad loss because it opens other opportunities which were closed to people
like Seferis, and represents a freedom from interference which Mandelstam
would obviously have envied.
And it is precisely our long history of experimentalism, of course, which
has removed the poet from that kind of position. You can't surely have it
both ways-- you can't work poetry into an unreadable and untransmissable or
totally personalised language-use and at the same time demand the ears of
the multitude. Even if you speak in a different way then.
And we should remember that the development of radical poetry has
insistently cultivated an extremist attitude which may be good for radical
poetry but may be very harmful when turned towards politics, where we are
after all dealing with people's immediate lives.
Doug had to put a caveat after the name of almost every modern poet he
mentioned as having had real political (? or social) effect, as if implying
that this was done at great cost or loss, not to the poet but to the
poetry, or that it was realised from a position of extremism the value of
which as "influence on people's lives" might be extremely negative. I take
it influence is not valued for its own sake, but only for the good. Pound
was not mentioned but he also had influence beyond poetry and is still
valued for it in some extreme-right circles, I expect.
Probably we can all think of people whose lives have been irremediably
broken by the influence of poets. Like all those who shot over to Buffalo
(or not) in the hysteria of The New American Poetry and came back heroin
ghouls. That was political too.
A poet needs to be in the position of the most ordinary person.
Meanwhile Keston's direct challenge has been completely bypassed. His
letter forced a dilemma onto the discussion which demands settling and
which renders all else meaningless until it is settled. His question "can
poetry by other than metaphysical" is where we have to decide whether we
are or are not still in the poetical condition where, for instance, the
writing of measured or regulated verse is "a symbolic act of loyalty to the
central government." (1) and the whole language condition implied. I make
no attempt to deal with this question now, or probably ever. I'll just say
I think the most useful thing poets can do politically in their work is to
produce a poetry which reads as if it is free from big bosses, which has an
inhering liberty in the way it proceeds, in the way the mind moves in it,
whether the poet is able to realise that liberty in his own life or not.
All this about political poetry is a bit too much like big bosses hovering
over poets saying "You've got be political."
(1) Stephen Owen, Chinese Poetry and Poetics, 1985.