Monday, October 1, 2007

A Note on Poetry and Politics

Marxist critic Fredric Jameson, a prominent academic leftist, values art instrumentally, as a critique of or counter-ideology to bourgeois ideology. For him, art is useful as a mode of oppositionality, social struggle conducted by other means. But art’s critique is precisely the critique of usefulness, of means-end rationality. For Immanuel Kant, freedom was the kingdom of ends, in which all entities, including people, existed for their own sakes and not as the means to some other end. Octavio Paz writes that “The poetic experience…does not teach us or tell us anything about freedom: it is freedom itself unfurling itself.” The poem presents a world in which every word, every phrase, exists both as an integral and indispensable part of a larger whole and as something significant (in both senses) in itself and for itself.

The independent existence of art is the product of the rise of what Theodor Adorno calls instrumental reason and what Jean-Francois Lyotard calls performativity: if everything has to be good for something, then art is good for itself. Art’s importance is that it has no place in our culture. As Paz acutely puts it, “poems have no value: they are not products susceptible to commercial exchange….Commercial circulation is the most active and total form of exchange our society knows and the only one that produces value. As poetry is not a thing that can enter into the exchange of mercantile goods, it is not really a value. And if it is not a value, it has no real existence in our world.”

Poetry is potentially liberating because its uselessness marks out a space not colonized by or valued by capital. Its “obsolescence” is also its resistance to being easily consumable; its loss of “relevance” is also a freedom to keep alive certain human possibilities. In this sense, the drive to make poetry “relevant” is a concession or a surrender to instrumental values, to the imperative of use and functionality: poetry had better be good for something. And poetry simply isn’t politically efficacious; as W.H. Auden so perceptively noted, “Poetry makes nothing happen.” The conflation of the existence of social, political, and economic elites with muddled notions of intellectual or aesthetic “elitism” is sheer obfuscation. The power elite in this country care nothing for art or culture; they care about money and power and the means to acquire and retain them. Art is not among those means.

Those who wish to change society might better turn their energies toward society itself, to the real areas of oppression and suffering, economic, political, racial, and sexual. (Identity politics can be a useful organizing tool of social activism, though it can also lend itself to a group solipsism that blinds people to structural, systemic issues.) To blame literature, or culture as a whole, for social, economic, and political woes (or even to see it as central to their perpetuation) is evasive at best, dishonest at worst, a kind of posing as politics, in social commentator Adolph Reed’s trenchant phrase. But such posturing is much easier than doing the hard work of trying to change the world. “Cultural activism” is a poor substitute for real political activity, although we live in an era in which cultural matters are up for debate while fundamental economic and political questions are not, except on the often loud but frequently incoherent and usually ignored fringes.

George Oppen gave up writing poetry for several years in favor of political activism, because he believed neither that poetry could change society nor that it should be subordinated to an agenda. In Oppen’s words, “If you decide to do something politically, you do something with political efficacy. And if you write poetry, you write poetry, not something you hope, or deceive yourself into believing, can save people who are suffering.” Several years ago, I was asked by someone I had just met whether my poetry was Afrocentric. I told him that I didn’t know what he meant by that term, and he said, “You know, dedicated to the liberation of black people everywhere.” My only answer was, “I don’t think that poems can do that.”

Poetry’s preservation of mystery is its preservation of a space not colonized by capitalism’s totalizing impulse. This is also the preservation of a space not colonized by instrumental reason. The poem embodies this space in its specificity as an event in language: a good poem is not simply a recounting or re-enactment of an extra-linguistic event, but an occasion of its own. The poem is a new thing in the world (or better: it is a new event), not simply a copy or an account of an already existing thing: it cannot be reduced to its “meaning” or its “content.” Part of what poetry does is remind us that things and events, including language, including ourselves, aren’t as accessible or as apprehensible as we think they are. The Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky described art as a mode of defamiliarization, making the familiar strange, or perhaps revealing it to have been strange all along when not seen through the smudged and blurred lens of habit and routine.

The encounter that poetry can provide with a realm of experience not defined by or limited to the social (however much it may engage and interrogate that realm--certainly, politics can be the subject matter of a poem) is the most valuable and liberatory thing poetry has to offer in our over-determined world. I wouldn’t want to surrender that freedom to an agenda or a program, however well-intentioned.


UCOP Killer said...

Hi Reginald,

I don't actually think that the opening sentence about Jameson is correct, although it's something I've heard many people say. Jameson values art instrumentally *as a critic*, but he doesn't have much of a concept of art as regards agents making it [maybe in the Brecht book, which I haven't read]. This is what pisses poets off about the symptomatic readings that follow from The Pol. Unconcsious. Unlike Adorno, he almost never (perhaps to his loss) looks at the writer's side of things. And he would be the first to admit that bad political positions or apolitical positions can produce interesting mappings of ideological space--Balzac and Celine are the examples he gives.

About art's autonomy, I mostly agree, and certainly agree about its inefficacy. The problem, though, is that once one goes the extra mile and say that art *should* be autonomous, then one has actually left behind the dialectical double-bind that Adorno sets for it. People often talk about his reading of political commitment (contra Sartre) as instrumental reason, vs. the negative freedom of, say, Beckett, but they never mention the part where Adorno says that if art complacently accepts its own autonomy it is absorbed and nullified as one commodity among others. Hence, it's crucial that what's happening in "Lyr. Poetry and Society" takes place behind the poet's back. There can be no formula for it. Autonomy as injunction is just as bad as politics as injunction. I'm not saying this is your position, just that this other side of things is one that rarely gets told.

And, too, I think these arguments about autonomy have become such an integral aspect of current theorizing re: poetry that what we now have runs the risk of becoming a false or spectacular autonomy, if it wasn't already in Adorno's time. That's to say, such freedom can no longer--never could be, in fact--taken as a given. A certain force is necessary.


Reginald Shepherd said...

Dear Jasper,

Thanks for your comment. With regard to Jameson, I'm not sure what your disagreement is, as I don't discuss whether Jameson addresses the role of the writer as well as the reader, or whether he attends to writing as a mode of making. Your comment seems to reinforce the view that he looks at art instrumentally, which was my only point here.

I of course agree that a writer's social position or political opinions don't determine the value or meaning of his or her work, which in its complexity can often contradict those overtly held positions. The artwork can be smarter, or at least more perceptive, than its maker. Marx pointed out that Balzac's reactionary monarchism did not hinder his clear presentation of objective social relations.

As for the autonomy of art (or semi-autonomy, if you prefer), it is a social fact. The question is how one deals with it. While much visual art is deeply enmeshed in the market economy (even though its value as a commodity is based on its transcendence of commodity status), poems (which, in Levi-Strauss's characterization of music, are virtual objects whose shadows alone are real) have neither use value nor exchange value. As my reference to Levi-Strauss indicates, they aren't even really things at all. (Is "the poem" this printed copy or that handwritten copy or this oral performance or this mental representation? Etc. etc.)

Thanks again for your comment, and take good care.

all best,


Unknown said...

Thanks Reginald, I’ve enjoyed your blog. The word political is in a sense like the term liberal, in that it has been demonized. Calling someone a liberal is derogatory, even though the literal definition doesn’t support the negative shadow the word casts. Politicians often defend demonizing remarks of opponents as just “Politics.” My point is that a subject for poem can be human and particular, with no political intentions. For instance a poem on a homeless man living under an interstate bridge. The intent is not political, but the interpretation might be. And the only thing that might "happen" might be for someone who has read the poem to glance under the bridge while she drives home from work. As you state, the “realm of experience” is added to.

After a reading I once gave a man asked, “Do you consider yourself a political poet?” I told her the truth when I said it never occurred to me that I wrote political poems. And it’s always helpful to paraphrase Orwell that not having a political opinion is a political opinion. If a poet steps over a dying man to write a poem about the enormous skyscraper and how it touches the heavens….

Thanks, great stuff.

Michael Catherwood

Matt Walker said...

"If a poet steps over a dying man to write a poem about the enormous skyscraper and how it touches the heavens…."

What if the poet calls an ambulance for the dying man before going ahead with the poem about the skyscraper? Maybe that's what George Oppen would do...

Robert said...

I kind of hate to say this or even think it, but isn't poetry always necessarily stepping over dying men and women? Without that awful "stepping over," would there be a Midsummer Night's Dream or Ode to a Nightingale or "I heard a Fly buzz -- when I died"?

JforJames said...

Yesterday Martin Espada gave a talk on Neruda. He spoke about Neruda's politicalization, his turning away from poetry that was primarily concerned with beauty.

Espada read from the poem "Explaining A Few Things," which has the telling 'metaphor': "and the blood of children ran through the streets / simply, like children's blood."

Espada in his talk also used Auden's "poetry makes nothing happen," as a foil, the way it is often used. But despite the aphoristic appeal of that statement, I think it's a shame that essayists don't go to what follows in passage from which it's excerpted. Because Auden uses that line to set up a subversively political notion, and I don't that the casual reader of poetry would understand that: “For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives / In the valley of its making where executives / Would never want to tamper, flows on south / From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs, / Raw towns that we believe and die in, it survives, / A way of happening, a mouth.” Thus, Auden’s “poetry makes nothing happen” is itself a foil for all that follows in the passage, and some nod should be made to that fact whenever it’s used, otherwise Auden’s sentiment is misrepresented.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Reginald, I believe you sum the matter in this statement: "Poetry is potentially liberating because its uselessness marks out a space not colonized by or valued by capital."


JforJames said...

It seems to be political poetry week here in Hartford. Just got back from hearing Sam Hamill speak and read. He's got opinions for sure about politics and poetry. He derisively stated that the U.S. is probably the only place on the planet where the question of Can poetry affect/address politics? is even asked.

I posted a note to the New-Poetry listserv the other day about the 'efficacy' issue in political poetry. I said that a citizen-baker might bake pretzels shaped like peace-signs. A citizen-barber might shave his head. And of course the citizen-poet would turn to writing poems when moved by political circumstance. The citizen-gunsmith might begin boring rifle barrels in his basement, and that might be the most efficacious act in a brutal political struggle, but it may not be the means that other citizens would choose to register protest or to fight injustice.

And why would a poem be less efficacious than carrying a handwritten placard in a march or writing a letter to the editor or spray-painting graffiti in a subway. Many political struggles build by an accumulation of smaller acts. I’d posit that not a thing George Oppen did in those silent years has had anymore effect in world than his poetry has.
J Finnegan

Reginald Shepherd said...

Thanks to all for reading and commenting. With particular regard to James's comments, Auden's point is that what poetry makes happen is not measurable in purely practical or instrumental terms. As James quotes from "In Memory of W.B. Yeats," poetry survives in the valley of its making, a way of happening. It survives, when it survives, in the mouths and ears and minds of its readers and listeners, and whatever it makes happen, happens there. The changes poetry makes are changes in consciousness, and there is no guarantee of them. Reading and thinking about literature can make one a better person, but it might just make one someone who has read and thought about literature. Auden's poem certainly implies no practical outcome to poems, let alone a predictable one.

Even as a discursive act, writing a poem is less effective than carrying a placard in a demonstration or writing a letter to the editor, in part because of poetry's bracketing off from praxis, its contemplative nature, whereas placards and letters to the editor are universally acknowledged parts of the public sphere, of civil society. I also don't see poems as a very efficient or efficacious way to convey a singular and directive "message." Poems don't lend themselves well to the simplifications and flattenings-out that agit-prop requires. I have doubts about just what agit-prop itself (which is usually preaching to the converted) accomplishes in real terms.

Oppen's example is important to me not because I wish or plan to give up poetry, or even because his political activities had any great practical outcome (I don't know whether they did or not), but because it is a demonstration of the simple fact that to be "a poet" doesn't define, let alone restrict, all the possibilities of one's life or one's actions. Your examples reminded me of the essay "The Bomb" by Eliot Weinberger (in his book Works on Paper), who is a very sharp thinker about the relationships of poetry, politics, and society, though I don't always agree with him. He notes that it's rarely considered that "the poet is also a citizen (capable of activities other than writing poetry) and that the poet is also a writer (capable of writing something other than poetry."

Weinberger cites Oppen saying "I didn't believe in political poetry or poetry as being politically efficacious. I didn't even believe in the honesty of a man saying, 'Well I'm a poet and I will make my contribution to the cause by writing poems about it.' I don't believe that's any more honest than to make wooden nutmegs because you happen to be a woodworker." Weinberger follows this with a wonderfully cutting comment about a 1982 "Poets Against the End of the World" reading ("protesting" the proliferation of nuclear weapons): "Here's my wooden nutmeg against the end of the world."

Take care, all, and thanks again for reading and commenting.

all best,


Reginald Shepherd said...

On the question of political art or agit-prop (which is not the same as art that engages political material as its subject matter), of art that primarily aims at a practical result, I think that such attempts transform the enabling uselessness of art into a despairing futility. As art critic Abigail Solomon-Godeau writes of the 1930s leftist German photomontagist John Heartfield, "[his] covers for AIZ (Arbeiter Illustriete Zeitung) had no discernible effect on the rise of fascism, although he was able to draw upon two important historic conditions unavailable to [today's] contemporary artists (a mass audience and a definable left culture).”

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