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.)