Seed Magazine has this illuminating conversation between linguist/anti-war activist Noam Chomsky and evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers. Their overarching topic is “deceit,” but the subtopics they touch on (“groupthink,” “maintaining credibility,” and “denial”) are powerful contributing factors to the human ability—exacerbated by bureaucracies and media—to deceive ourselves and others.
In the discussion of “groupthink,” Trivers makes an observation that may explain why political poetry is so difficult to write well. “If you’re a member of my group,” Trivers says, and you do something good, I make a general statement ‘Noam Chomsky is an excellent person.’ Now if you do something bad, I give a particular statement: ‘Noam Chomsky stepped on my toe.’ But it’s exactly reversed if you’re not a member of my group. If you’re not a member of my group and you do something good, I say, ‘Noam Chomsky gave me directions to MIT.” But if he steps on my toe I say, ‘He’s … an inconsiderate person.’ So we generalize positively to ourselves, particularize the negative, and reverse it when we’re talking about other people.”
This kind of groupthink is why it’s so easy for political poetry to be bad. Political poetry often assumes that the reader is a member of the poet’s group (i.e., that the reader shares the poet’s concern with global warming or the oppression of Palestinians or corporate corruption, whatever); on the other hand, political poetry can assume that the reader is not a member of the poet’s group—which is worse, because the result tends to be a harangue fraught with generalities.
So, how do great political poets make it work? They begin, it seems to me, by steering away from generalities—which are merely attitudinal tags that put readers on notice about the poet’s view of the audience, letting them know if they are members of the poet’s group or not. Secondly, they keep both sets of readers in mind as they write, looking for details that will help readers outside the poet’s group feel like they secretly are members of it, or that they should be; details that also make self-identified members of the poet’s group experience the ambiguity of that membership: that is, just because the reader’s political stance aligns with the poet’s does not mean that the details are simplified, devoid of shadows. Overall, they succeed by maintaining a clear distance between the poet and the reader, a distance larger than most lyric poems do.
Here’s a classic political poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley. It succeeds by staying detailed and by maintaining distance. There is not a generality in sight—and yet we come away from with a fine sense of the vast vanity of conquerors and their ultimate irrelevance. Even though the British Empire it obliquely sneers at—the poem was published in 1818—has since passed away, we can read in “Ozymandias” about the vanity and ultimate irrelevance of American’s conquests as well, the truth of the poem rendering hollow our exceptionalist rhetoric:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear —
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
There are, of course, great political poems that address their historical moments more directly and in more general terms. But these tend to draw much of their power from the poet’s assumption that he is addressing members of his group. Think Yeats’s “Easter 1916” or Neruda’s “The United Fruit Co.” [you’ll need to scroll down to find it]. Of course, these kinds of poems over time can win readers over into the poet’s group, and so might be considered more effective than more distanced poems like “Ozymandias.”
Ultimately, while good political poetry seldom woos partisans into the streets, at its best it does raise consciousness—like all good poetry. Which gives the lie to Auden’s famous line, “Poetry makes nothing happen.” It just ain’t true, Wystan!