Political Poetry

Stu Watson

What is political poetry? It is, on the one hand, the poetry of protest that seeks to address, through its content or the radical form it takes, society’s perceived ills. It can emanate from an alienated voice crying in the wilderness, or from a laureate standing beside a newly anointed king—what matters is the direction and indeed the directed nature of this song: towards the people, towards the polis, towards the world. It is loud. It demands attention and is not immune to dogmas, creeds, or (most galling of all) didacticism. Such political poetry must also, out of necessity, be “moral” in nature—whether its morality is based in attacking or maintaining the status quo. And this political poetry is necessary, even in its sincerity, even in its sometimes blundering, its ugly openness—it has something to say.

But there is a second type of political poetry, one that seeks not so much to marshal forces but to dramatize society’s forces as they are marshaled; to reveal, not through subject matter but through a manner of approach, the affective ramifications of living-in-the-world—ramifications almost always truncated, foreclosed upon, by the didactic turn of the first type of overtly political poetry. The voice of protest is the voice of utopia, that is, of no place, and knowingly so. It must shut out a certain array of tonalities in the name of seeking its goal. It is Idealistic, but at what cost? This second sort of political poetry might be considered a registry of that cost. To put it another way, it is a tallying of our human indemnities.

Costs are damages (we might also speak of “fees”), and there is always damage done in telling someone what to do. But can we fix the damage? Can we reconcile ourselves to its necessity—that it is unavoidable—both as perpetrators and as victims? This is not simply damage of an aesthetic sort, though it can be that too, but a broader, divisive damage leveled by ideologies—damage that occurs as much locally as globally, between friends as between nations. It is the damage done in the name of the homogenizing project of Neo-Liberalism and the paranoiac “worldliness” of Neo-Conservatism. It is a consequence of surveillance, that quasi-moral force that would see all human activity as quantifiable.

In the face of such a totalizing economy, where values of competition are always exalted over those of reconciliation, the only way to acknowledge our inherent worth as human beings is through a documenting of sensibility—that aspect of perception incapable of being reduced to language, to number, to currency. The theorist Bifo Berardi, following Guattari, defines sensibility as “the faculty that enables human beings to interpret signs that are not verbal nor can be made so, the ability to understand what cannot be expressed in forms that have a finite syntax.”[1] We understand each other as human beings through rhythms that, try as it might, the tongue cannot fully disclose, cannot regulate within the laws of a grammar or form.

Thus political poetry is, somewhat paradoxically, language that makes us aware of those qualities of life that are beyond language. Poetry charts absences, the “skreaking and skrittering residuum” beyond the human will for enumeration and articulation. Part of what is left out, part of that remainder, is the body itself in its myriad, hyper-complex interrelations with the physical environment. The poetry of explicit protest, even as it admits in its very directedness its own limitations, is still vitally necessary as an aesthetic cry against the violence done in the name of “law and order,” or “racial superiority,” or any other martial credo. The second type of political poetry follows, in a sense, after this initial charge; it arrives late. Its function is on the local level as it seeks to augment over time the vocabulary of political exchange, to enlarge the verbal space enough to admit of non-verbal feelings and potentialities.

Between these two types of political poetry a dialectic is at play, though one whose synthesis is ironical; this play of advance and reconsolidation in its movement creates a metaphorical currency that is itself outside the economy, a sensibility—the way in which a poet deploys his or her sensibility might be defined as his or her tone. As Berardi says, “Poetry is the reopening of the indefinite, the ironic act of exceeding the established meaning of words.”[2]

The contemporary Russian poet/actionist Kirill Medvedev articulates a stance the politically engaged writer might employ in confronting the methodical deployments of a totalitarian regime, one perhaps more advanced than but not unrelated to the governments of Western Europe and North America in its fascistic tendencies:

I am a poet. And we poets do not want to be victims of history, we do not want to be dissidents, the very thought depresses us, we are talented, we are avant- gardists, we want to be that which no one has ever been before. But if you force us to become phantoms, if you turn us into the old ghost of the Russian-Jewish intelligentsia, into superficial men and women, into a trembling and hysterical mass of courageous rats—then it will be we who destroy your government, your empire, your authority, who tear it to shreds. Because we will, once again, tell the truth, and the truth, for you, is the beginning of the end.[3]

Though this language is simple and direct in expressing its radical political orientation, one recognizes immediately something else—an undergirding tone of defiance that surprises with its self-ironizing turn: “We do not want to be dissidents, the very thought depresses us,” he says, at once acknowledging his generational position as a “millennial” (those supposedly “coddled” by an abundance of technology) but also ironizing that position quickly by invoking the “phantoms” of past historical moments, of groups previously trampled by earlier iterations of totalitarianism. Medvedev cries out against cynicism but does so ironically, aware that the true revolutionary power of poetry lies in its ability to undermine the empty, rhetorical flourishes of fascist dogma. An engagement with “truth” is necessary, even if it must be reached through irony. Only a radical irony can overcome long entrenched cynicism.[4]

All poetry is political, as is all language; but poetry in its ancient sense as an act of “making” is tasked especially when it turns its focus towards the genuine reform of “things as they are,” as the lives of many poets testify. But the body, the actual human body in the physical world, must be a central locus for political poetry today, in an age seemingly obsessed with ever more intrusive forms of ratiocination, surveillance, reduction, and classification. The body as repository of unexchangeable feeling is our only hedge against the workings of so much insidious linguistic machinery. Political poetry must call this into question through language, and when that is not enough, through poetical actions.

Prelude welcomes discussion on the particularities of political poetry in its continuing efforts for an unacknowledged legislation of the world. 


  1. ^ Franco “Bifo” Berardi, “Poetry and Finance” in The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2012), 144.
  2. ^ Ibid., 158.
  3. ^ Kirill Medvedev,“My Fascism (a few truths)” in It’s No Good, trans. Gessen et al., (Brooklyn: n+1/Ugly Duckling Presse, 2012), 136. 
  4. ^ Berardi defines contemporary cynicism as “an internalization of the impotence of truth.” (Berardi, 162.)