I’ve always been puzzled why, when people get into debates about whether poetry should or even can be political, they seem to forget that many poets consider politics not a dreary duty – but a muse. From Blake and Shelley, to Ginsberg, Oppen, Rich, Armantrout and Perelman, poets have found the potential for rich imaginative play, pleasure and (often dark) humor in the ideas/concepts, imagery and word games of the political realm. No surprise here, of course, as the language of politics sometimes stirs, for better or worse (usually the latter, no doubt) the kind of agony and ecstasy of great artworks.
Thinking of all this during election season, I came across a Creeley poem from the 60s which seemed wonderfully prescient about our current predicament. It’s called “America” and begins, “America, you ode for reality! /Give back the people you took.” A few lines later we find out that “the people” “America” has stolen, aren’t the victims of say, some foreign imperialism (or historical ethnic cleansing) but us/U.S:
People are your own word, you
invented that locus and term,
Here, you said and say, is
where we are. Give back
what we are, these people you made,
us, and nowhere but you to be.
Some of the most brilliant and creative political and social thinkers of our era, from the late Pierre Bourdieu to Ernesto Laclau, have argued that in any system that needs to defend at least a pretense to “democracy”, practicing politics entails (among many other things) a rhetorical battle over who gets to define “the people.” As Creeley’s poem notes, one of the great sources of power of the image of “America” – why it almost claims to be “reality” (i.e., a representation of “the world”) itself, is how our politics have been able to almost copyright the concept of “the people.” The battle of the current, and last few, elections have been in part over how “the people” (or their semantic doubles, “the middle-class”) are defined: are they a cultural or economic group (the answer to which may be: “depends on how bad the economy is”). And as the Creeley poem suggests, part of defining something is naming it – and such acts not only describe but also create (we are “these people you made”). But like the characters in any convincing narrative, “the people” in this poem assume a life of their own – and the “America” that authored them, no longer represents who they are. In other words, if “the people” (prompted by a new set of needs and anxieties) begin redefining themselves, a crisis of representation occurs. New definitions and definers are required – and it becomes time to “throw the bums out”.
Jerome Sala lives and works in New York City. His latest book of poems is Look Slimmer Instantly! from Soft Skull Press.