There are many ways of making political statements: speeches, nonfiction writing, posters—even literary fiction. Why bother to use poetry, a much more labor-intensive and rarified type of communication?
As a form of political speech, I find poetry the most persuasive. By putting a political statement into poetic language, the writer is challenged to make the diction as fresh, immediate, and original as possible.
In his landmark essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell defines good writing as “picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer.” That’s exactly what poetry does at its best.
Let me give you an example of how poetry can bring to life a political argument. Here are the opening lines of one of my favorite poems by June Jordan, the great poet who passed away ten years ago:
Infinity doesn’t interest me
I crawl and kneel and grub about
I beg and listen for
what can go away
(as easily as love)
like the children
hard on oneway streets/infinity
doesn’t interest me
(“On a New Year’s Eve”)
If you were to make the argument of this poem in nonfiction prose, it would most likely fall flat on its face: “I believe that living creatures are much more important than abstract concepts.” Boring. It’s the way that June Jordan tackles the subject in poetry that makes it unforgettable and convincing. First of all, she takes on “infinity.” You can’t take that type of verbal leap in a speech. That one word, infinity, evokes so many things. Here, June Jordan seems to be alluding to the tendency of organized religions to focus on the otherworldly, as opposed to the here and now. It’s much more interesting and verbally efficient of her to take on “infinity” as her antithesis, instead of an elaborate prosy construct like the one I put into the previous sentence, or the paraphrase in quotes above.
Then June Jordan gives such a specific contrast to infinity: children. But not just any children, “children/running/hard on oneway streets”—an image as vivid as a film clip. June Jordan also uses the hard rhythms of the language to suggest those sneakers smacking asphalt. She mentions “oneway streets,” as opposed to the two-way streets of genuine dialogue and opportunity. These children might not be fortunate enough to live on those wider and more prosperous boulevards. June Jordan uses all these strategies to keep us involved in what is really a political and philosophical argument. Could prose do that? And look: “infinity” appears again, but this time right after the children, on the same line as their running on the streets, as if “infinity” applies to the running children instead of being a mere abstraction, as it becomes again in the following line.
I could give many other examples of poetry producing some of the most memorable political statements. There is Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandius,” mocking the shattered statue of a fallen tyrant. What about Pablo Neruda’s hymn to the Spanish Republic, “I Explain A Few Things,” with its aching refrain, “Come see the blood in the streets”?
Or Paul Eluard’s lyrical anthem to the resistance to fascism in World War II, “Liberty,” which was actually scattered by allied airplanes as a leaflet when they flew over occupied France.
There are also Nazim Hikmet’s great statements of the importance of life, such as his poem “Living is no laughing matter.”
None of the political speeches made on those same subjects have endured as long as those poems, or retain as much universality.
Other recent posts about writing topics:
Why Write Poetry? Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Poetic Forms: Introduction; The Sonnet, The Sestina, The Ghazal, The Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer