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?
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.