When is the personal political?

Scavella has me thinking again.

Some rooting around on the web dug up a rather wearisome argument about who said the personal is political first. But then, what does it mean? The phrase was coined in the context of feminism, to a great extent in relation to intimate uses and abuses of the body. Does it stop there? Some more or less random excerpts from this site:

every part of our personal lives [can] be affected by the political situation

what [the personal as the political] was really meant to do was create an awareness of how our personal lives are ruled by political forces

it took me some time to acknowledge that ordinary daily events could be political

Hell, these are some huge definitions. Just what is meant by “political forces”? The mind boggles. The three branches of government at the local, state & federal level? The paths and repositories of authority in any given culture? The way cultures interact (or don’t) with each other? The way nations interact (or don’t) with each other?

And let’s not even begin with “personal.”

Then if we scrunch things down (quickly and arbitrarily) to poetry, one question might be: what is engaged poetry? In the existentialist sense — being aware that one creates one’s own meaning and values, refusing convention, choosing and deciding minute by minute, living in doubt, regarding nothing as ever settled? Or is engaged poetry merely advocacy – soap-boxing for the rights of one or another of a range of oppressed social groups?

In either case one could write good or bad poetry.

And what if one intends neither, but one’s work is read in one or the other way? Is one then “engaged,” willy-nilly?

Time to go away and think. Meanwhile, here’s a quote from Tony Williams’ answer to No. 1 of the Ten Questions, which I think is pertinent here:

1. In this 2003 interview, Canadian poet George Bowering quotes Shelley: “The poet is the unacknowledged legislator of the world.” Do you think the poet has a specific role to play in human affairs in this century? If so, what is it?

This is difficult territory to traverse because there are two activities going on, the theoretical/political/social and the technical, what you think and how you write. The irrelevant poet is someone who is only interested in poetry and not in the relations that poetry might have to the world. The earnest boring poet is someone who is primarily driven by the theoretical/political side. But it isn’t a question simply of avoiding those extremes. The relation of craft and content, or of practice and theory or however you want to phrase it, is delicate and inscrutable.

It seems to me that the poet needs to be basically in thrall to technique, interested in how to write and in what makes good writing, but part of what makes a good writer is bringing one’s intelligence and writing skill to bear on the world outside poetry. The best poets re-imagine the world, or imaginatively reconfigure the world, and it seems to me that neither the poets who bang on about their own feelings and personal relationships nor the ones who seek to make political points or exemplify political systems are doing that to any appreciable degree.

It’s very difficult for a poet to write well in the light of a perceived responsibility to engage with matters outside the poem – whether these are political, historical, moral, theoretical, aesthetic, etc – because as soon as you have a conscious desire to do so, you’re serving two masters. The poems I write with too fresh an impression of an extra-poetic idea in my mind tend to be uniformly dreadful. I am increasingly impressed by Louis MacNeice’s prescription, ‘I would have a poet able-bodied [able-minded]…a reader of newspapers…informed in economics…actively interested in politics’. That is, you have to be interested in the world as well as in poetry, and somehow and somewhen the poems will come.

  • And, also relevant, I think – Paul Stevens’ answer to the same question:

The poet’s specific role is to tell the truth, or to uncover the truth, as he or she sees it, using memorable and precise language. This happens in a number of ways. Poets may tell the truth in openly political poetry, as Tom Paulin has done. But when poets make poems, truth-tellings, then that has political implications no matter what the apparent subject of the poem. Politics is based on twist-speak, on the perversion of language to purposes other than truth. If poetic enactment is proper use of language, it must also be a political act – a legislation, a coding of the law, and a liberation from untruth – even in the twenty-first century.

4 thoughts on “When is the personal political?

  1. Rob says:

    I think a person should write the poems he/she wants to write. Personally, I am fed up with the prevelance of minor (and usually unconvincing) epiphanies from domestic settings, and would like to see more risks, more engagement between the personal and the political world i.e. personal issues being tackled in a wider context than the merely domestic.

    But poets have to write about what interests and moves them, otherwise there’s no point. The intersection of the personal/political, the secular/mystical, and the intersection of different cultural norms are subjects I find interesting, but might send other people to sleep. Ultimately, as with any subject, it depends on whether the poet has anything to say, how engaging the poet’s ideas are, and on how well he/she manages to write it all down. A poem about switching on a washing-machine could work well if it finds a way to engage its readers.

  2. Absolutely people should write what they want to write. What’s interesting, though, are the prevailing conditions that somehow dictate that in general what people overwhelmingly want to write about is, as you say, “minor epiphanies from domestic settings.” It seems that the same conditions also dictate that in general we are fated to automatically interpret everything (poetic) we read through the same minor “domestic” optic – ie seeing only narrow “domesticity” where much larger contexts are in fact in play.

    I think the US-UK poetry blogosphere has its own closed dynamic in this regard (and this may be a good or bad thing for poetry, I don’t know which). Elsewhere in the world, it seems to me that a failure to engage with the supra-domestic (in both writing and reading) is prima facie evidence of failure as a poet and a reader.

    Which is not to say that any point on this scale is right or wrong — we are all much more a product of the civilizational forces in play around us than we are definers of them, and it would be silly to expect any kind of majority to swim upstream against those forces regularly, in any consistent mainstream kind of way.

    Still a lot of thinking to be done on this one. Good to hear from you, as always.

  3. [...] The crits were very fair, I thought, and touched on the exact bits of the poem that, while not exactly giving me trouble, are not yet entirely integrated into the piece.  All I can say is that the piece (poem?) is opening the door on something that has been niggling at me for years.  What it is I won’t say.  But I will direct you to one of VLAW’s meditations on engaged poetry. [...]

  4. sefton says:

    Well, I’d argue that all acts of fiction (poetry included) are inherently political, simply because of how they work.

    When we’re very little, we don’t distinguish between the imaginary and the real. Which is why Peek-A-Boo works; apparently, the infant’s psychology is that Mom has disappered forever, though Mom’s voice remains–wait, look, there’s a brand new Mom, and she seems just like the old one…fascinating. A hand blocking/unblocking the view is indistinguishable from destruction/miraculous, redemptive creation.

    A few years into life, we’re have a rough sense of what’s real and what isn’t, but we don’t particularly care about the distinction. Which is why dolls and stuffed animals work, and why children blurt out frank, embarrassing, haunting things from time to time.

    Finally, sometime early in schooling, we’re corrected by teachers every time we say something nonsensical, and shamed by peers when we say something uncool. The message hits home: so many things that occur to us naturally are impractical, unproductive, and antisocial, and therefore must be suppressed.

    So a pattern is set: however genuine we think we are, we have public and private personas, ones which filter and ultimately hide all those half-thoughts, impulses, inexplicable, completely personal constructs of meaning, fantasies, reveries, and strange bits which never really leave our minds. If we admit to this part of our consciounessness at all, it’s in sanitized terms: Imagination (the demiurges disneyfied), The Life of the Mind (an excuse to name-drop all the books we’ve read), or Therapy.

    The Dreamed Life (for want of a better term), of course, is bigger than that; it’s irrational, unruly, inexplicable, and by turns wonderful and horrifying. And what’s interesting about fiction (in all forms) is that it deliberately seeks out what society has trained us to discount. Fiction wants us to immerse in the Dreamed Life, to let the mind stuff have free reign as it runs across the words. It’s a haven for connotations, allusions, linear and nonlinear associations, and unparaphrasable complexes of meaning–the literary equivalents of the always wandering, always active mind.

    Whether it’s purpose-built to kill hours in airports, or it’s got every intention of rocking the world, fiction wants to be engrossing. Unlike advertising (which flirts with the Dreamed Life purely for sales), fiction only wants to persuade us of its own value. In doing so, by extension, the possibility is opened up for us to restore the value of our own mind stuff. We see that time has flown, that our empathy has been engaged by something that isn’t real, and we’re reminded that the world can extend beyond three dimensions and five senses if we let it.

    That, I’d argue, is political. By calling out to the Dreamed Life, fiction is a threat, regardless of the social conditions. It suggests that once reactivated, the Dreamed Life can’t be regulated. It posits dreaming as a serious rival to doing (or even–gasp–purchasing). It re-raises the question of why social norms are structured to suppress something natural, something that informs who all of us are. It fairly insists on a kind of individuality and access that aren’t feasible or even possible in physical, socialized, economic systems.

    Whether that translates to overthrowing the government or sleepily remembering Stone Walls Do Not A Prison Make on the morning commute, I still think the medium is the message here. Fiction is a transmission from one imagination to another; it’s coded in ways that essays and petitions can’t be, because it’s first order of business isn’t a new world order, it’s redeeming the value of something that exists wholly in the mind.

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