Poetry and Politics

This has been another busy week, which is to be expected, since it’s the last full week before finals. What I didn’t expect (until recently) was the news of Governor Barbour’s proposal to merge MUW with MSU. This has put everyone in high gear to respond and keep up with classes!

I’ve laid down the poetry pen and picked up the letter-writing pen this week, with a couple of letters to the editor of our local paper. The first was in response to an editorial on “denialism” and the second to several letters pronouncing the death of MUW and an editorial about how Grandma needs to get out of the kitchen. This has me thinking about the connections between politics and poetry.

I haven’t written a poem about the merger yet, and I don’t know if I will. Sometimes letters are the most poetic form for the message that needs to be said, though if the occasion arose (a demonstration or other public event where a poem might be fitting), then I might see the point of writing a poem. I have written political poems, though, and some have even made it into my books. “Reflections on Tora Bora” is one, and I kept it because, though the initial situation that inspired it was long over by the time the book came together, I felt it spoke to bigger issues that the book also addressed: what it means to be an American, how we use language to name our weaponry, and our history of violence and war. Maybe I haven’t written a poem on the university merger proposals because I haven’t connected them to a larger issue yet — or maybe it’s just because I’ve been too busy with other forms of writing to process it as poetry.

I did get a chance to read poetry in a political context this week, however. I had already been asked to speak to the Lowndes County Chapter of MUW’s Alumnae Association, which I was happy to do. Their meeting was this week, a few short days after the Governor announced his budget, and after I’d published one letter to the paper and submitted the second. Reading poems in this politically charged environment automatically became a political act, so I chose to read “Spring Beauty,” written about another completely different political situation (or several on both the world and the local stages). It ends with the image of spring beauties, wildflowers, as a symbol of resistance to oppressive forces in the world. Several other poems that I read, which I don’t think of as overtly political, can be seen in the same light. The natural cycles of death in winter and renewal in spring inspire resistance to the destructive forces around us, even as winter poems can inspire an acceptance of the things that can’t be changed. Death can’t be avoided forever, but college mergers can be resisted right now.

What I’m getting at is that any poem or any strong statement is political in the right context. The beautiful poem that is simply beautiful when ensconced in a literature anthology, may have begun its journey with a more political intent, and regardless of the original intent, when taken out of that context and placed in the real world, it can have a political effect. The act of writing poetry is in some historical situations a political act, and I would argue in any situation it can be political. That is why I’ve never bought the artificial distinction between poetry (supposedly apolitical, disinterested, neutral, more than likely masculine) and political poetry (which is somehow deemed inferior, as if the desire to have an effect with what you write is somehow a flaw). If poetry is powerful language, then it must by definition have the power to move and therefore must be political.

But sometimes letters are what is called for (or Declarations, Constitutions, or Addresses — I heard on the Writer’s Almanac that yesterday was the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, a political prose poem of the highest order). But now I’ll probably have to write a political poem after all…

Published by Kendall Dunkelberg

I am a poet, translator, and professor of literature and creative writing at Mississippi University for Women, where I direct the Low-Res MFA in Creative Writing, the undergraduate concentration in creative writing, and the Eudora Welty Writers' Symposium. I have published three books of poetry, Barrier Island Suite, Time Capsules, and Landscapes and Architectures, as well as a collection of translations of the Belgian poet Paul Snoek, Hercules, Richelieu, and Nostradamus. I live in Columbus with my wife, Kim Whitehead; son, Aidan; and dog, Aleida.

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