State of the Union - 50 Political Poems, Edited by Joshua Beckman & Matthew Zapruder
(Wave Books, Seattle/New York, 2008)
Poetry as Insurgent Art
Some readers have decided to turn a deaf ear to Wave Books’ latest anthology because they just “don’t like political poetry.” My first forays into poetry were Whitman, Ginsberg, Cummings, Ferlinghetti, and Neruda— which is to say, I’ve never consider a poem to NOT be political. Often when one remarks that they “don’t like” political poetry they are referring to the explicit, overtly obvious poem. Personally, I cannot imagine my life without having read Howl and other poems or A Coney Island of the Mind, but maybe it has become a truism— good political poems have been outweighed by a massive heaping of bad political poetry, the sort that cause consistent cringing. But I suggest that you set aside your biases and read State of Union.
I’ll caution you that there are plenty of poems that directly cipher anger via the use of a proper noun, but this is not a necessary indicator of bad poetry. Matthew Rohrer’s poem, "Elementary Science For Dick Cheney", begins with, “The shark is not evil, / not mean./ The wolf/ is not mean. The fox/ is not mean./” Rohrer simplistically works his way through a litany of animals until the poem crescendos with, “It is you, the vice/president of our country, /who is despicable, / The poem sets up a contrast between humans and animals illustrating what separates the two living organism is a sense of morality and ethical responsibility which Cheney has eschewed to the detriment of this country. Rohrer’s direct calling out of Cheney reminds me of the power of poetry and why Plato said poets should be feared.
The beauty of State of the Union is that the editors worked hard to assemble an anthology that expands upon our idea of what a political poem is. The anthology includes heavy hitters like John Ashbery, James Tate, Eileen Myles, and Albert Goldbarth, as well as, a lot of younger (earlier in their career-- if one judges a career solely based on books published) poets such as Thomas Sayer Ellis, Mathea Harvey, Tao Lin, and Mathias Svalina. Both Lin’s and Svalina’s poems do the work of expanding our perceptions of what is political. These two poems alone are worth the price of the book, as they are the kind of poems that you will read over and over, out loud to friends, lovers, and enemies.
Tao Lin’s poem, "Room Light", is a long player which incorporates the daily malaise of living, “something beautiful was moving me/ away from my philosophy; in my room at night/ i blogged about the preconceptive nature/ of right and wrong/” the poem moves through a series of subtle shifts hinged on repetition, “a kind of abstract longing/ the uncompromised expression of emotion/ through words and music made me feel better/ because it was not really changed by abstractions/ or publicly-owned companies/” This is merely an enticement as Lin’s poem needs to be read in completion to get the full power and elegance of it.
"Forgiveness" by Mathias Svalina begins, “There are two/ problems: the problem/ of human to human/ forgiveness & the problem/ of a dead blue jay /in the drainpipe./ Svalina’s poem intelligently weaves politics within the framework of a larger question-- that of ethics and social responsibility:
There is no history
that passes for history.
Everyone knows the definition
of Darfur & yet in a
random poll of 200 Americans
only 12% would reach
their hands into the drainpipe
& pull the rotting
blue jay out.
Sadly, the state of society is thick with the stench of rotting blue jays so the question becomes what are you going to do with your hands?
Steven Karl is the author of State(s) of Flux, a collaborative chapbook with the artist, Joseph Lappie, forthcoming from Peptic Robot Press. His poems have appeared in or are forthcoming from Barrow Street, Vanitas, Zoland Anthology of Poetry, No Tell Motel, Eleven Eleven, Real Poetik, and others. His reviews have appeared in Cold Front Magazine, Sink Review, and LIT online. He lives in New York City and blogs about poetry, music, and daily etcs at stevenkarl.blogspot.com.