Political poetry. As soon as you read those two words, an opinion flashes through your mind. You either think it works, or you think it's generally a bad idea.
My mission, in this post, is to change your mind either way.
I'm going to focus discussion on a magnificent poem by Rick Lupert, a wonderfully imaginative poet, who also happens to helm Poetry Super Highway. Rick is an incredible creative talent; I encourage you to check out his numerous books, his poetry blog, his daily web-comic, Cat and Banana, and everything else he does. But for now, we're going to focus on his poem "RBG" from the September 23rd, 2020 issue of Oddball Magazine.
Click the pic above to read the poem in full.
The poem's title clearly states Lupert's political intentions. He wants to place deceased Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, in the same place of memory as JFK or MLK. This is an understandable impulse, but what's amazing is how Lupert starts the poem:
In a year that has taught my stomach
how to take a punch
Bringing the body into a poem is always a good idea. Here, Lupert accomplishes three things at once: he gets your attention, he brings you into the poem bodily, and he sets up a confessional element. This isn't a poem about beauty or nature or falling in love.
Despite the open political theme, nothing truly divisive or even potentially controversial appears until the lines:
With evil across the street
you were the balance.
This is outright jingoism. Or is it?
I think we have to look very closely at the poem here. If we read these lines too literally, we miss Lupert's authentic originality. Instead of editorializing, what he's doing here is continuing the "gut-punch" reaction from the opening line. The speaker remains so dazed that, for an instant, spouting easy platitudes is all that seems possible -- that is, until we reach the crucial word "balance."
What the speaker seeks here is a sense of closure. And that closure is found through purpose. Read the closing line to see how Lupert expertly turns the poem around from despair and confusion to optimism and resolve. This is what you want to do in any poem, make a dramatic arc of emotion, but it's particularly effective in political poetry because it wards off dogmatism.
OK. A brilliant piece of work to be sure. But I promised to challenge your assumptions. If you think political poetry is a good idea, I'd like you to read the poem and consider the fact that it's impossible for some people to read the poem without seeing only gushing propaganda. Simply by taking up such a theme, you've alienated potential readers.
If you're of the mind that politics and poetry should remain separate, let me say: a poem like this proves that assumption false. The poem succeeds on any technical or aesthetic level you care to name. I've only scratched the surface here.
It's truly inspired work.
So, again, I ask: is politics a good fit for poetry? You tell me.
In a bit of unrelated news: I've put out a call for poetry submissions -- paying $1.00 per line. I'm buying all rights. Click the "submit" button below.
Thanks, btw, to D.D., E.B., D.P., and R.H. for your recent poems and comments!