(These are a few notes Bill made to sharpen what he thinks of as his wits on the way down to the Poetry Book Fair on Saturday October 17th. He was on a panel with Choman Hardi, Ron Villanueva, and Sophie Mayer, hosted by Fiona Moore, discussing political poetry and poetry politics.)
The crisis you encounter as an editor of a daily blog of political poetry is the same as the one you face as a writer of poetry at all: how do you escape the confirmation bias of preaching to the converted, what Facebook has conveniently identified as your circle? How do you burst the poetry bubble of people who already do that sort of thing?
Most of us – poets especially – find ourselves irresistible. Our ego loves our beliefs, and thinks them all both reasonable and good. Some of us have Opinions About Things – in which case we should remember Wilde’s remark ‘Most people are other people’, ie are you sure that opinion is actually yours? Some of us have marvellous systems which answer all our questions for us while allowing us to display our knowledge of said system – mansplainers, Londonsplainers, Marxsplainers, alike, all have answers a-go-go, usually to a different question from the one you asked.
What most of us share is a passive relationship to an active if frequently unarticulated ideology. Poetry is one of the ways we wake up to that.
When I was speed re-reading Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria for my intro to New Boots, one sentence from his discussion of Shakespeare’s ‘Venus and Adonis’ caught and held my attention: ‘The reader is forced into too much action to sympathise with the merely passive.’
Coleridge is making a point about how a good poet dramatises the act of reading poetry, so that it’s not just hard work, but engaging and energising as much as it is immersive and persuasive. He’s opposing this to just that opinionising or systematist aspect of the self, if not also to a consumerist, ‘entertain us’ attitude in the reader. This rang a loud familiar bell for me.
The lyric poem like the song from which it derives, often seems inadequate to the demands of the political because it encourages precisely that passivity, the act of overhearing something perhaps a little too familiar – yeah, yeah, you love/hate him/her/it. We know. Its mode, if not always its content, discourages us from independent thought, as though it were the PowerPoint of poetic discourses.
What we found we were opposing to this still dominant mode in poetry in English was a kind of editorial polystylism, an acceptance of a whole series of rhetorical tactics that, collectively, dramatised the act of reading the blog.
One day might be a found poem based on the Smith Commission’s report on Scottish independence, another might be a pastiche of a Poundian economic canto, another might be – yes – a lyric poem. Every day became a way of considering Hugh MacDiarmid’s interesting assertion ‘…all poetry that is not pure/propaganda, is impure propaganda for sure’.
Elegy, squib, ephemera, parable – we were assembling a set of rhetorical categories that could be political. Now, the idea that this expanded taxonomy might replace the consensus that a poem is a lyrical, personal, anecdotal, epiphanic event might be pretty utopian, but at least it gave us something to build on from day to day.
Poetry, we realised we were asserting, is a way of, first, wakening up to and, second, resisting your own inherent and inevitable ideological standpoint.
Why? Because of its intense focus on words themselves, their opacity in terms of rhythmic, musical, imagistic texture, their etymologies, their cultural and historical and political specificity. The act of moving back and forth from this microcosm to a macrocosm, looking across a range of poetic modes, causes writer, editor, and – possibly – reader, to reconsider in political as well as cultural terms the key question asked by the Scottish poet W.S. Graham: ‘What is the language using us for?’