Dec '03 [Home]


Excerpts from a May 13, 2003 Interview with William Pitt Root
by Daniela Gioseffi

Further adventures of the self-delighted self are not what's wanted.
—Terence Des Pres

[Poetry Feature]

. . .

DG: We've had few presidents or politicians aside from Abraham Lincoln, Mario Cuomo, Eugene McCarthy, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton who have truly valued the nuances of the written word to the point of caring about poetry. Senators Robert Byrd and Paul Wellstone were often quite poetically literate in their speeches, quoting poets and such. This is more common, perhaps, among leaders of European or Asian countries. But, in addition to your own work, you teach a course devoted to political poetry at Hunter College, don't you?

WPR: Yes, at the graduate and undergraduate levels. It's called, "Walking through the Fire:  Global Political Poetry of the Twentieth Century."

DG: Explain, please, what you mean by 'political poetry.'

WPR: Thanks for asking. Since the "Poets Against The War" phenomenon, there's such a rush to recognize political poetry—after so many years of neglect!

DG: Yes, indeed. I started this book and interview project on political poetry back in 1999, and was sidetracked by putting out a second edition of Women on War:  International Writings this year. My first edition came out in 1988 and was also full of 'politically resonant world poetry.' Then 9/11 ensued before I could really get into or finish this project of U.S. poets over the age of 60, and living as I do in sight of the Twin Towers disaster, and witnessing it with my own eyes, firsthand, I was sidetracked by editing a website in memorial to 9/11, and the possibility, also, of doing a new edition of my anthology On Prejudice:  A Global Perspective, which Doubleday brought out in 1993, and which contains much poetry on war and genocide and its issues, too. But, back in the 1980's, I started Poets and Writers for Nuclear Disarmament and collected many poems on Cold War issues. So, I was surprised to see many thinking that Sam Hamill was doing something new. Especially since I was involved with the Olive Branch Book Awards during the 1980's as a member of the nominating committee of The Writers and Publishers Alliance for Nuclear Disarmament. But, there is no single definition of what 'political poetry' means, is there?

WPR: It's easy to assume there is a settled definition. The range really includes everything from cheerleader chants for demonstrators—sort of like oral tradition bumper-stickers—to the coolly nuanced works of [Czeslaw] Milosz and [Seamus] Heaney. In the broadest sense, it can all be said to be 'political poetry.' And sometimes even the coolest heads can vent outbursts more searing than any street shouter:

What is poetry that does not save
nations of people?
A connivance with official lies,
A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment,
Readings for sophomore girls.

(Milosz, "Dedication")

But for anyone whose primary interest is politics, not poetry, first things first. That tough-minded reader can point out that, just as a person's calling himself or herself a politician doesn't make him a politician, calling a poem 'political' isn't meaningful if that poem is not politically effective. Real political poems have real political consequences. That's a tough specification.

DG: Can you point to some American poems that would meet such a tough specification, please?

WPR: For such a pragmatist, political poetry in the U.S.A. is rare. Emma Lazarus might score, for her immortal Statue of Liberty sonnet ("Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses longing to breathe free," —"The New Colossus"). That poem, or lines from it, are among the best known articulations of those fundamental values many of us grew up believing did in fact portray the true face of America. Next, well, there is no next. To find something poetic and on a par with Lazarus's poem, we'd probably go back to Lincoln, for any of several speeches, or to Frederick Douglass, and then leap forward to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, whose rhetoric is so elaborately figured and passionately fired that I, for one, even after hearing it countless times, still have no difficulty taking it as straight to my heart as I take the speeches of Shakespeare. In other words, as poetry.

DG: You wouldn't classify any other American poems at all as having political consequences?

WPR: If we agree that political poems in fact produce direct political consequences, not many. Maybe some long-forgotten works of Julia A. Moore, 'the sweet singer of Michigan,' since they contributed to improved conditions for the mentally ill. Or Sarah N. Cleghorn's acidic little quatrain etching the injustice of child labor. It's still got a real bite.

The Golf Links

The golf links lie so near the mill
That almost every day
The laboring children can look out
       And see the men at play.

I'd love to say hats off to Leaves of Grass—and, of course, I will—but the fact is that not many of Whitman's contemporaries read his work, and many didn't like it when they did, and ever since, politicians of all stripes have kept as far from him and his work as possible until the good gray poet had become an institution among institutions, popularly known only for his least objectionable aspects. Laura Bush's intention to have contemporary poets pay homage to Whitman and Dickinson is living proof of just how neutered the Whitman image is in some minds.

DG: I doubt Laura Bush really read Whitman as Abraham Lincoln actually did. I've heard her talk about books, and she really doesn't sound like much of a reader—and her husband disavows liking to read at all. He depends for his information about the world on briefings by corporate 'experts' like Dick Cheney of Halliburton and Lockheed Martin, and such. I doubt either Mr. or Mrs. Bush really knows the works of Walt Whitman or any other poet well.

WPR: The man was deeply radical, not because he was a subversive or contrary, but because he was a true believer in democracy, that actual democracy which does not look kindly upon unfairness or intolerance, the corrupting influence of robber barons, or politics as usual. This much Sam Hamill knew full well.

DG: Perhaps, but I wonder how many realize that Whitman's best self is in his poetry, as he was often somewhat bigoted towards Native and African Americans in his prose and commentary. I was surprised to find that to be so when Ishmael Reed, for one, pointed out the bigotry in Whitman's prose. It's clearly found there. According to George Hutchinson and David Drews in an article titled "Racial Attitudes" in J.R. Le Master and Donald D. Kummings's book Walt Whitman:  An Encyclopedia, (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), Whitman did not truly transcend the racial attitudes of his time and there are many instances where he talks of African Americans and Native Americans as inferior and destined to die out in favor of the superior white man. It's there in his prose, not just someone's opinion, though his poetry is radical, as you say, in its uncompromising pursuit of democracy. This phenomenon of his prose and commentary is not popularly known as, naturally, it's his poetry that is more widely read, even by scholars. But what other American poets you would name as politically consequential in their work?

WPR: Carl Sandburg, whom I mentioned earlier, was muzzled in mid-career. Sandburg certainly figures prominently in any account of the political poetry of the United States. Arguably, he still stands as a one-man political tradition:  award-winning journalist, biographer, authority on American folksongs, and novelist, as well as culture hero. As a poet, he was a far kinder, gentler Whitman, a family man, as opposed to Whitman's loner image; he was the Whitman who didn't scandalize and outrage his potential constituency, and he was the one who easily spoke with as well as for his beloved "roughs and jazzbo's." And, I should mention both John Beecham and Kenneth Fearing [1902-1961] as genuinely estimable figures in political poetry.

And then there are some surprises. For instance, throughout the 30's, Yiddish-speaking socialist poets wrote energetically about American realities for the workers, but how many workers read Yiddish? Allen Ginsberg knew about that work, however, and some of the way he styles his energies in "Howl" indicate a debt to those anonymous forbears.

DG: Ginsberg also acknowledges, in Voices and Visions, a big debt to William Carlos Willians for "Howl." He points out where "Howl" follows the language in a poem of William Carlos Williams, as it begins in almost the same way as William's poem regarding the degradation of the American spirit of the laboring classes, which William's witnessed in the povertyicken lives and cruel working conditions of urban factory life in Paterson at the height of industrialization, lives so overcrowded into tenements and devoid of natural beauty.

WPR: Yes, and if Whitman invented American poetry in the 19th century (and he did, even if few people noticed at the time), his voice and Ginsberg's joined in the 20th Century to show the world the quintessential American poet—full-blooded, full-bearded, fully sexed and fully radicalized. That image was far from representative of the facts, but it serves the truth well enough. If it's not what the American poet is, maybe it's what the American poet should be. Poets from nearly every nook and cranny of the world know those two poets, even more than know Eliot, and are pleased to accept their influence.

DG: Well, I for one, would take Whitman and Ginsberg any day as influences over the precious, pretentious, and bigoted ex-patriate Eliot, who longed so to be an Englishman. Eliot's anti-Semitism is far more palpable than Amiri Baraka's, but no one is trying to strike Eliot with his mean-spirited poem "Bleistein with a Cigar" from the Canon, and not enough are decrying Pound's stupidity and anti-Semitic bigotry either! But there are, of course, scores, if not hundreds, of poets, good poets, writing politically conscientious poetry in America. Certainly you are one. What about all of them?

WPR: To get to the enormous mass of poems we usually mean by 'political poetry,' we have to retool our standard. Poetry becomes political when it renders either the conditions (injustice, repression, poverty) that give rise to large-scale change or to the process of change itself (recognition, reform, revolution, or war); and it can be written in retrospect, in media res, or as a kind of prophecy. Most is of the first sort, written after the event, and what's political about it is the content, as history rather than current event. It's a record of events rather than a cause of them. Rita Dove's "Celery" (about Dominican Republic dictator Trujillo) or Robert Pinsky's "The Shirt" (based on the notorious Triangle Shirt Factory fire a century ago [1911]).

DG: Yes, and "The Shirt" is so similar in content to Thomas Hood's poem "Song of the Shirt" [1843], and everyone has forgotten poor Thomas Hood [1799-1845], but he provided the prototype for what is arguably Pinsky's best poem!

WPR: Hmm, I'll have to look at that Thomas Hood poem. Interesting. But, as I was saying, in political poetry of the retrospective kind, at its best, as in "Epitafios" {1936) by the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos [1909-1990], a silenced history may, through poetry, come alive again to alter both the present and the future. And sometimes, of course, history used as analogy is both a potent and a prudent way to critique contemporary conditions too repressive to address head-on. The 20th century Turkish poet, Nazim Hikmet [1902-1963], did so brilliantly in his "Epic of Sheik Bedruddin". Copies of [Pablo] Neruda's Spain in My Heart [1937] were carried by many soldiers in the Spanish Civil War, as were works by [César] Vallejo [1892-1938], some of which he personally passed out in mimeographed copies to troops hunkered behind barricades.
Contrary to a popular misconception, political poetry is very, very seldom an open cry of revolt in the face of a tyrant. If that tyrant is a tyrant, you wouldn't hear such a cry twice. As Kierkegaard pointed out very early on in Either/Or [1843], power is power in part because it's so good at neutering opposition. It even has ways to convert its critics into entertainers:

Tyranny & Art

        After Kierkegaard

Because he has spoken freely in the land of a tyrant,
Because he has offended a king,
Royal smiths are fashioning this brazen bull for him,
Crafted to contain on the floor of its belly,
Above the gradual fire the King's own hand shall set,
This one man, naked, crouching.

A hollow
        Instrumental to the man's breathing
Will wind through the monstrous throat
Where it must serve to flute
The bitter cries of his long burning
Through lengths of gold and silver
So subtly, torturously tuned
That of such wretched cries
Is made the sweetest music.

Strip him,
Give him to the Bull. The King tonight
Is restless and would warm his hands
At the fire, and by the conversions
Of an enemy be soothed.

DG: Do you think political poetry is obliged to offer solutions, as well as opposition?

WPR: So far, poems that have been prescriptive rather than descriptive tend to be verse rather than poetry, and cheerleading slogans tend to be doggerel rather than verse. When we hear the spirit-boosters of march-wearied protestors, in tried-and-true chants like "One two three four, we don't want your racist war," we see it's not only evil that can be banal.

DG: How true! I collected all the slogans written on signs by people marching in the huge demonstration in New York City on February 15th, 2003 against the U.S. unilateral war on Iraq, and strung them together with the title, The People's War Protest Poetry. There were many clever and humorous sayings, but I'm not sure they rose to poetry.

WPR: The exiled Chinese poet Bei Dao, now at the University of California, at Davis, has remarked: "When politicians go crazy, they want to foist their ideas on others and poets decline the honor." Declining the honor just may be one of the American poet's strongest weapons: [Robert] Bly and [W.S.] Merwin turning down literary prizes awarded during Vietnam, Hamill turning down an invitation to a literary tea with Mrs. Bush, will be remembered for a long time.

(Daniela Gioseffi is a regular contributor to the magazine. [Masthead] The American Book Award winning author of ten books of poetry and prose, her latest is an e-book of poems titled, Symbiosis from Rattapallax Press, 2002. Her first book, Eggs in the Lake, from BOA Editons, contained poems which won a New York State Council on the Arts Grant. Subsequent award-winning books were Word Wounds and Water Flowers and Going On from VIA Folios at Purdue University. She reviews for many journals, among them The Cortland Review, The Hungry Mind Review, American Book Review and The Small Press Review. She's won Poet Lore's prize for literary criticism, and she edits The Feminist Press brought out a newly revised edition of her women's studies classic, Women on War:  International Voices for the Nuclear Age, in 2003.)

[Poetry Feature]