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The Intersection of Politics and Autobiography in Poetry

By March 28, 2007

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We’ve had many discussions of political poetry here at About Poetry (see the articles listed below to sample them), and the relationship of poetry and autobiography is a perennial concern. Readers too often assume that the poetic narrator, the “I” of the poem, is the poet him/herself. And even while poets maintain the distinction between their personal lives and the characters in their poems, they will admit that the seeds of many of their poems grew in personal experiences. The connections and distinctions between politics, autobiography and poetry have come to the surface in recent news:

The students of Steven Barrie-Anthony, a blogger at The Huffington Post and journalism advisor at Occidental College, recently came across a couple of poems written by Senator and Presidential candidate Barack Obama when he was a 19-year-old student there and published in the Occidental lit mag in 1982. When he posted Obama’s Poetry, Barrie-Anthony introduced the poems by saying, “I pay less attention to what politicians say, more to how they say it. I’m looking for humanity, somewhere beneath layers of handlers and speechwriters and general hoopla -- for fragility, for an indication that these folks and I share the same kind of DNA.” This raises all kinds of interesting thoughts: poetry as the human connection, poems as the true mirrors of the poet’s soul, or perhaps they are simply artifacts of youth and no longer truly relevant. Obama’s poems and Barrie-Anthony’s notes about them certainly prompted a wide range of responses in the comments. What do you think?

And while we’re talking about the relationship between poet and poem, here’s another public discussion of these issues worth considering: Slate Magazine’s “Memoir Week” conversation between Meghan O’Rourke and Dan Chiassen on Autobiography and Poetry. It’s a fascinating discussion of truth, reality, intimacy in poetry. The conclusion: “‘Tell the truth but tell it slant,’ writes Dickinson. That will have to do for now.”

More articles on politics and poetry:
The November Third Club, a new online journal for politically inclined poets
A new & engaged review in New England, The New Hampshire Review
Neruda: Politics & poetical judgment
May the poets speak freely?
Raising Their Voices: Poets speak out against the war with Iraq
Poetry in Times Like These,” by Victor Infante, a meditation on poetry’s place and the debt of our art in the post-9.11.01 time of war & crisis
Willie Perdomo Gets Political: Where a Nickel Costs a Quarter
The Center Cannot Hold: Slam, Academia & the Battle for America’s Bourgeoisie,” also by Victor Infante, an essay on the generational cycles of poets & poetic institutions, class & politics in American poetry, slam poetry’s evolution into a new establishment.
The Beat Goes On: Lawrence Ferlinghetti Is Still a Rebel,” an interview with Ferlinghetti on the Poet as Outsider by Victor Infante
Stranded: Poet Mark Strand Preaches Political Indifference at UCI,” Victor Infante’s response to the effort to divorce poetry from politics

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