Five types of political poem

(Here, by way of a last post from New Boots and Pantisocracies (yes, we know that most likely means we’ll be posting something else in a minute or a month if probably not a millennium), we are gathering by the great river of political discourse Christy Ducker’s five types of political poem. And yes, there are probably many more types, but now as when we began, we thought it might at least stimulate discussion. Do join in below in the comments.

The poems are listed in a combination of links and extracts – though the Armitage you’ll have to hunt down yourselves – hopefully you haven’t read them all before, and even so, might enjoy revisiting some of them. Over to Christy.)

Type 1: The declamatory

Here, the personal and the political come together in one voice. Speaking out is itself an act of defiance against orthodoxy: these are poems which insist on the first person, and assert the agency of language by way of a refrain. Tonally, these poems conflate the mercurial with the autonomous.

Examples might include Maya Angelou’s ‘Still I Rise‘.

Another might be Langston Hughes’s ‘I, Too‘.

A third example is ‘The Language of the Brag‘ by Sharon Olds.

2. The Subtle

Resisting false resolution, these poems juxtapose the global and the personal. Threat and disaster are shown slant. Here, the power of language lies in its capacity to reflect on our social realm, to test and to quest: the tone is provisional and tentative; there are fractures of form or nervy enjambements; images of distance and connection coexist uneasily.

As an example, here’s an extract from John Burnside’s ‘History’:


– with the news in my mind, and the muffled dread

of what may come –

I knelt down in the sand

with Lucas

gathering shells

and pebbles

finding evidence of life in all this


snail shells; shreds of razorfish;

smudges of weed and flesh on tideworn stone…

Another instance might be Frances Leviston’s ‘Bishop in Louisiana‘.

3. The Vernacular

Here, everyday language is used to democratize the public realm. Supple and demotic, voice in these poems moves as swiftly as political events. Social issues are approached with a lightness of touch, in recognition that everything (including language) is subject to change.

One example well worth seeking out is Holly McNish’s ‘Snotty Noses’ – another, more easily accessible online, is the same poet’s equally touching and trenchant short film poem, ‘Embarrassed‘.

There’s also James Robertson’s sharp piece in Scots, ‘Manifesto for MSPs‘.

4. The Metaphorical

These are poems of attempted reconciliation. Using extended metaphor, they try to reassemble what has been scattered by political events. Elements kept separate in everyday life meld, with the effect of attempted healing. A wry tone undercuts this and signals that loss can never be fully repaired.

Examples include ‘My father’s books’, by Choman Hardi.

Another example, available online in Google Books, is Simon Armitage’s ‘Meanwhile, somewhere in the state of Colorado’.

5. The Act of Witness

This is poetry as evidence. In bald language, these poems record what injustice and tyranny do to humans. The voice is testamentary, the imagery stark, the necessary obligation is clear: to keep traumatic memory alive, and the reader vigilant.

A key example of this final category would be Claudia Rankine’s ‘Citizen’:

Others would include ‘Postcard 4’ by Miklos Radnóti, quoted here in its entirety

I fell next to him. His body rolled over.

It was tight as a string before it snaps.

Shot in the back of the head—“This is how

you’ll end. Just lie quietly,” I said to myself.

Patience flowers into death now.

“Der springt noch auf,” I heard above me.

Dark filthy blood was drying on my ear.


October 31, 1944

This is reproduced from Clouded Sky, a collection of Radnóti’s work translated by Steven Polgar, Stephen Berg, and S. J. Marks ( New York: Harper & Row, 1972), accessed here.

Finally, there is the famous ‘Instead of a preface’ from ‘Requiem’ by Anna Akhmatova:

“In the awful years of Yezhovian horror, I spent seventeen months standing in line in front of various prisons in Leningrad. One day someone “recognized “me. Then a woman with blue lips, who was standing behind me, and who, of course, had never heard my name, came out of the stupor which typified all of us, and whispered into my ear (everyone there spoke only in whispers):

“Can you describe this?

And I said, “I can.”

Then something like a fleeting smile passed over what once had been her face.”

April 1, 1957

(This version by Frederick R. Andresen can be accessed here.)


New Boots Reboot, 1: G.B. Clarkson

lemonjim hour: brittle england

the muse, here to amuse, brings a clock.
my hands and brain are chapped from taking her notes.
glimquist and sunkissed on a burgundy chaise longue
she turns phrase after phrase on the lathe of her tongue
and flutes, drills, planes, until she produces
five flights of solicitor’s banisters to snake down the staircase, hemming me in and
she is truth-pillowing everything out so that I’m breathing as
shallow and stinky as bathwater, anemone-blind, choking on her alien
mouthwash as she bats me from pillar to post, copper-manic, feeding me what she calls
ilk milk, squeezed from cliffs of dover: she a sovereign autonomous rose, till she drops
like a poppy, one ochre petal for each bong of the clock at tea time, drumming the carpet
with glee

G.B. Clarkson’s poems have appeared in Poetry, The Poetry Review, Poetry London, Ambit, and Magma, and in anthologies including The Best British Poetry (Salt Publishing, 2014), The Poet’s Quest for God (Eyewear, 2016), Furies: a Poetry Anthology of Women Warriors (For Books’ Sake, 2015), and This Line Is Not For Turning: An Anthology of Contemporary British Prose Poetry (Cinnamon Press, 2011); as well as in the Daily Mirror and The New European. They have also been broadcast during the BBC Radio 3 Proms series. She has two pamphlets – Declare (Shearsman Books, 2016) which was a PBS Pamphlet Choice, and Dora Incites the Sea-Scribbler to Lament (smith|doorstop, 2016), a Laureate’s Choice.

Poems for Purdah: Christy Ducker

The Enemy

It wasn’t that we had grown complacent,
in fact we’d had quite a difficult time,
but the wound was so large and demanding
we had to tend to that. It was only
later we noticed the change of pressure,
that something had come in and squatted us.
It stopped our mouths with what appeared to be
a thin film. We couldn’t puncture the stuff.
The usual strategies wouldn’t work.
We heard someone on the radio change
the word ‘rules’ to the word ‘witchcraft’.
We tried to learn quickly about the law.

Christy Ducker is a poet and tutor. Her first full-length collection, Skipper, was published in 2015, and includes work commended by the Forward Prize judges. Her pamphlet, Armour (2011) was a PBS Pamphlet Choice. Her commissions include residencies with Port of Tyne, English Heritage, and York University’s Centre for Immunology and Infection; she is also the director of North East Heroes, an Arts Council England project. She is currently working as a research fellow at Newcastle University’s Institute for Creative Arts Practice.

Poems for Purdah: Paul Summers

the sleeper wakes

it is almost

drown out
by the drone

of our shopping
channel juicers

the bleat of our trauma
our narcissist blurt

the quiet slaughter
of the fattened poor


to my kingdom

to the fag-end
of its progress

a slow-mo flash-fire
of bubbling tar

consuming the fibres
of jaundiced filters

this autumn air
our breath incendiary

we live off fear
& borrowed hate


& nothing
will grow

in the shadow
of our romance


way off-camera
beyond the reach

of news cycles
& investigative minds

the death toll is rising
the body count grows

bruised hearts
& airless lungs

clogged arteries
& petrified tongues

passion corroded
empathy eroded

asphyxiated dreams
statistics & lies

& god is dead
the faithful fucked

their currency
devalued or defunct

our father. oh father
grant us each day

our daily pills
our snidey tabs

our red-tops
& the strongest drink

our multipack crisps
our poundshop ket

our smack & crack
our poppers & skunk

deliver us our bargain hunt
& the great british bake-off

imprison us with labels
cage us in our minds


we live off fear
& borrowed hate

i will smear my cell
with dogma & lard

unleash a plague
of thankless hope


it is almost

through the drone
of this chatter

the movement of traffic
the transit of hours

the rumble of hunger
the hiss of the rain

the dirge of defeat’s
monotonous refrain

durer’s horsemen
braying at the door

the quiet slaughter
of the fattened poor

Paul Summers lives in North Shields. His last couple of books are Union (New & Selected) & Primitive Cartography. His latest collection Straya appeared in March 2017. (All titles with Smokestack Books.)

Neu! Post-Truth Poetics DAY SIXTY-FOUR – Peter Rühmkorf (translated by Peter Russell)

Stay Shockable – and Fight Back

So today: first, second and last shout
To all that’s been chased round and wrung out
Which I, though lowly, saw sway and crack
What’s empty tomorrow but yesterday was full:
Before your head is frozen to death, a bare skull:
Stay shockable – but fight back.

Those who fuck up our earth, water and air
(Forward march! Trust in god and the motor car)
Before they talk you round the houses and into a sack
To be stitched up, bought and sold
While you wait for the transmutation of puke into gold
Stay shockable – and fight back.

So sweet, how mortals stir themselves and start
Targetting coshes to the kidneys and the heart
So soon failed courage betrays love behind its back…
If you stand head bowed, others bowed will follow
(And then you won’t need to seek your sorrows
Everything you fear, now it all comes true -)
Stay shockable
Stay shockable – and fight back.

Fight back, all of you! Unpractised in victory;
Between Scylla here and there Charybdis
Is the swinging exchange rate of the Odyssey…
Darkness flows out after the rich and sweet
But when you and your comrades – go out and find them! –
Share the gloom, the danger will easily
And soon crack…
Stay shockable …
Stay shockable…
Stay shockable – but fight back.  


Peter Russell was born in London in 1954. He grew up near Portsmouth and studied Comparative Literature with German in Norwich and Regensburg. He now writes and performs in Glasgow, where he has lived since 1985. His translation of ‘Schulpause/Breaktime’  by Günter Grass was commended in the Stephen Spender Prize for Literary Translation 2016. 

Peter Rühmkorf  was born in Dortmund in 1929 and died in Roseburg in North Germany in 2008. 
He believed that poetry in the modern age could be “a Utopian space where we can breathe more freely, feel more deeply, think more radically and nonetheless feel more connected with each other than is possible in the so-called real world.”