Political Poetry

As I write, poets in other lands are in prison because they composed verse with political content that angered or frightened their leaders. These are brave men and women, willing to risk their lives to express their political beliefs. In most countries in Europe and North America, the right to compose political poetry is protected by laws and constitutions, so we tend to take this freedom for granted. Few, if any of us, will ever write a political poem that prompts the FBI to investigate our backgrounds or tap our phones, although we know this happened (in my era, during the turbulent Vietnam War). Few, if any of us, will ever write a political poem that captures the essence of an entire generation (although you will read such a poem in this chapter). Few, if any of us, will compose revolutionary verse so powerful that the media in America carries its message to millions (although you will also find such a poem here).

It can happen. Political poetry, more than any other kind of verse, has the power to change society or our notions about society. It combines a volatile subject with the most powerful vehicle of expression: verse. That's why many dictators have banned political poetry and why you should consider writing it because you enjoy free speech. However, if you are like most poets, you will tend to ignore public issues and write about intensely private ones.

Certainly I've composed my share of personal poems, especially when I was just starting out as a writer. Although I had strong political beliefs, I suppressed them because I thought poets should discuss love or nature. Eventually, I learned to balance that impulse by expressing my political concerns and discovering how effective poetry was in its ability to convey candid opinion.

In sum, I learned that political verse:

• Catches a reader's eye. Political poems are relatively rare. When I edited poetry for a literary magazine, I received about a dozen love/ nature lyrics for every political counterpart. When a political poem came in, I read it more closely simply because the submission stood out from the others in the pile of manuscripts on my desk.

• Catches a reader's ear. Political verse contains strong opinion, and opinion, by its very nature, affects voice —the sound or pitch of the poet's voice. For instance, too many love lyrics sound too sentimental or sweet, but a political poem may contain an angry, passionate or direct tone. This, too, distinguishes it from other submissions.

• Catches a reader's attention. Readers have political beliefs and opinions, too. They may embrace your poem as divine truth ... or dismiss it as propaganda. Moreover, if you send such poetry to editors, you also may get a personal response. Either they will encourage you to send more poems or tell you they disliked your work, depending on their agendas.

Political poetry underscores the fact that message is as important as language in verse. Even a mediocre political poem, composed in a weak voice or poor form, has the power to arouse readers because of controversial or patriotic content. But the best poems in the genre also rely on elements of craft to hone, shape or otherwise enhance content.

Before we see how, let's review the three basic types of political poetry:

The Revolutionary Poem. This type advocates the overthrow of a specific government or culture, as in this excerpt from Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Concord Hymn":

By the rude bridge that arched the flood, Their flag to April's breeze unfurled,

Here once the embattled farmers stood And fired the shot heard round the world.

The Patriotic Poem. This type celebrates a country, culture or form of government, illustrated by Sir Walter Scott in this passage from "Patriotism":

Breathes there the man with soul so dead,

Who never to himself hath said, 'This is my own, my native land!'

The Protest Poem. Here the poet protests certain acts or systems of a government. For example, this excerpt from "America" by Allen Ginsberg refers to labor, political and racial trials during the so-called McCarthy era of the mid-1950s:

America free Tom Mooney

America save the Spanish Loyalists

America Sacco & Vanzetti must not die

America I am the Scottsboro boys.

Each type of political poem has benefits and drawbacks. The more you become acquainted with them, the better equipped you'll be to discover your own political agenda and to generate ideas for such verse.

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