In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Romantic poets were active participants in political upheaval, both in their poems and in their lives. William Wordsworth visited France during its Revolutionary period and his idea of a poetry written in the language of the common man was influenced by its republican ideals. William Blake mythologized the American Revolution in “America, A Prophecy” in 1793. Lord Byron celebrated the ancient glories of “The Isles of Greece” in 1821 and died there working for the rebellion that would free them from the oppressive rule of the Ottoman Empire. Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote an entire verse drama, Hellas, to raise money for the Greek War of Independence, envisioning the restoration of freedom to the land where democracy was invented in its final chorus.
Some would say that writers and artists should stay out of political debates and confine their concerns to aesthetics. But others insist that poetry and art are the only things that can humanize politics and make it real:
from The Guardian (UK):
“Should power listen to poetry?” by Antjie Krog
This year the Edinburgh World Writers’s Conference revisited the themes considered 50 years ago at the very noisy and sometimes shocking international writers’s conference that was part of the 1962 Edinburgh Festival, and one of the noisiest of those themes was the question of “commitment”—whether writers should use their work as a platform for their political, religious or social beliefs. In this year’s conference, that question is put directly—“Should literature be political?” Antjie Krog’s address to the Cape Town Open Book Festival starts with the premise that all literature is political and concludes with the understanding that “literature inflects the anguish of reality in a way that theoretical discussions of the same issues cannot achieve, making possible a kind of understanding not accessible by other means”—and that is why politicians must read it.
Still, poems aren’t only or always about revolution. Poetry has recently been making its way into the public discourse about politics and politicians in the American Presidential campaign, which doesn’t seem particularly revolutionary this year:
from The New Yorker:
“What Mitt Romney Might Learn from Wallace Stevens,” by Michelle Dean
Wallace Stevens was in life the very opposite of the stereotypical romantic poet. He was an insurance executive, “a boring rich man.... more than a little removed from the daily concerns of the populace,” politically conservative and “never sure whether poets should declaim their political opinions.” He’s got a lot in common with Mitt Romney—but Michelle Dean traces an interesting evolution in his political thinking in the mid-1930s, an expansion of Stevens’ social consciousness during the time this country created Social Security, and she ends up wishing for a similar growth in Romney’s views.
Look back at our notes about poetry on the path to the White House in 2008, and consider the differences this year:
The Intersection of Politics and Autobiography in Poetry, Obama’s poetry (March 2007)
Harold Bloom comments on Barack Obama’s poems (June 2007)
Poetry vs. Prose in the Presidential Campaign? (February 2008) — This one has a poll asking “Would you vote for a poet for President?” Stop in and see how our readers voted.
Barack Obama’s Poem Now a Video (July 2008)