Generating Ideas For Political Poems

You may claim that you don't have a political bone in your body, but if you have bones, some of them are political. You might not care for protest poetry and might shrug at the mention of revolutionary or patriotic verse. Perhaps you are quite content with the status quo. If so, imagine an issue that would send you into the streets with a sign and a slogan.

Surely, there's one. For instance, millions of Americans are content to watch spectator sports every weekend or consume hours of soap operas during the week. Some of these people might claim they have no interest in politics, but they would soon become irate if somehow their televisions or their favorite shows were banned. True, that probably won't happen. But it also proves that there is something in everyone's life that he or she takes for granted but, actually, values quite highly.

Make a list. Cite issues that you would be willing to fight for:

• Dolphin-free tuna

• Your family's security

• Communism, capitalism, socialism

Depending on your values and agendas, these topics can generate ideas for revolutionary, patriotic or protest poems. For instance, the person who would fight for land might be a Native American who wants to reclaim her ancient territory or culture (revolutionary), a rancher who wants to protect his homestead rights (patriotic), or an activist who wants to stop the leasing of federal lands (protest).

You'll be surprised at the feelings you have about things you take for granted. But life is far more political than that. In communities across the country, dozens of neighbors petition local governments about such issues as education or zoning. Churches and their governing boards often take controversial political views on issues like abortion or single parenthood. Unions have political views. So do corporations. Even families have political traditions, boasting several generations of Democrats, Republicans, Independents or other affiliations.

Make another list. Cite the organizations or institutions in your life:

• Neighborhood Watch

• Catholic Church

• Republican Party

• Optimist Club

• Literacy drive

• Recycling committee

• Alcoholics Anonymous

• Voter registration

These organizations can give you ideas for all sorts of political poems. A member of the local PTA might have strong opinions about school budget allocations. He or she can compose a poem about lack of quality education for minorities (revolutionary), praising the concept of free public education (patriotic), or damning taxes that support education (protest).

Each day the media bombards you with political messages, and not only at election time. The opinion page of a newspaper is highly political, and letters to the editor in response to those opinions often feature revolutionary, patriotic and protest-making voices.

Make one more list. Cite issues being debated in your newspaper:

• Animal rights

• Teacher salaries

• Higher electric bills

• Threatened strikes

These topics can yield a wide range of political concepts. You can write a revolutionary poem about banning smoking in a tobacco-producing state like North Carolina, or a patriotic poem about your freedom to smoke, or a protest one about being fired for smoking in the privacy of your own home.

David Baker, whose poem we read in the chapter on love poetry, maintains that tapping into our personal politics can provide a sense of social awareness or public responsibility. "After all," he says, "language is itself a value-laden system. Our lives are greatly political, like it or not."

To underscore Baker's point, I have chosen three political poems that feature strong voices and opinions but that balance those with vivid images or scenes appealing to the emotions as much as to the intellect.

• Hilary Tham's "Mrs. Wei Wants to Believe the First Amendment" expresses a patriotic idea through the voice of an immigrant. Tham reminds us that we take for granted our right to speak out against the government, but she uses eerie images of repression from another country to emphasize her point.

• In "The Issues" by Sharon Olds, we encounter a protest poem against foreign policy. Although Olds is known for what she calls "ap parently personal poems" about her life and family, her political verse excels because of the power of her voice and the preciseness of her images.

• "Patriotics" by David Baker is revolutionary not in its call for the overthrow of our government, but for its rejection of our violent culture (symbolized by Fourth of July celebrations). He says that the poem reprinted here is one of the "truest" he has ever written. "That is to say, its narrative is virtually a transcript of something my wife and I experienced one summer in a small river town of southeast Ohio. Our sense of irony, rage and guilt —to see the happy celebration of war and silly patriotism, and at the same time to discover the town's recent, small, terrible tragedy —gave impulse to the poem."

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