So You Want to Write a Political Poem?

The following article appeared in the Press-Enterprise, Sunday, April 17, 2016.

This is the year it could happen. Maybe you’re stuck in a stop-and-go rubberneck on the 91 Freeway, the radio a dull drone through your morning migraine as the partisan station of your choice recaps last night’s 184th presidential debate, a town hall-style, lightning-round game of charades, where the candidate who terrifies you the most intellectually pantomimes the dismemberment of the candidate who offers at least a squint of hope, like those glimmers that might or might not be oncoming headlights emerging from the glare of a blinding commuter’s sun. Maybe it’s already happened. Maybe you’ve already begun making a list of rhymes in your head. Dump. Slump. Jump. Maybe you’re slant-rhyming Bernie with wormy, smarmy, and germy—most poems start as limericks (it was true until the fact-checkers checked it, I swear).

Wherever it happens, you might find within yourself at some point over the next eight months the sudden urge to write a political poem. If you do, I’ve prepared this simple guide to help you handle the situation with aplomb.

First of all: Don’t panic. Pull over to the side of the road somewhere safe, or wait for the nearest exit, then find an empty parking lot or an exceptionally long drive-thru line. Poems sometimes write themselves, but they can’t write themselves while you’re driving. Only poem in park.

Don’t feel guilty. A poem is just a special way to talk about special things. Human beings come equipped with language processing lobes in their brains that demand we talk, and all humans are subject to special times like now, and special thoughts about those times like these. We all have an innate desire to say the unsayable, to articulate all that lies just beyond the reach of articulation. Poetry can happen to anyone, anywhere, so remember: It’s not your fault.

Find a recording device. Often people today carry with them smartphones, and if you yourself have one, you can record your poem as a voice memo, text it to a long-lost friend, email it to yourself, or tap it out using a standard writing application. If not, many of the world’s greatest poems have been written on ancient, crusty glovebox napkins. It’s true. If all else fails, there’s still rhythmic memorization, a pneumonic device, which historically has been the point of poetry more often than not. Whatever tool you use, just don’t lose it.

Now that you have your poem saved, the real trouble begins. Sure, you’ve written something “felt in the blood and felt along the heart,” as Wordsworth put it, but what next? Does your political poem have any cultural value? Should you share it with close friends, or perhaps even the general public?

On this question, poets themselves have long been split. In “A Defense of Poetry,” Percy Shelley famously wrote that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” and others have been trying to pat themselves on the back equally firmly ever since. William Carlos Williams says, “It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” Your political poem could be a matter of life and death! More recently, Meena Alexander writes that, “We have poetry/ So we do not die of history,” a statement I particularly love.

Not everyone agrees, though. In a 1965 lecture to students at Berkeley, Jack Spicer said, “I don’t know of any political poems which have worked,” and suggested instead of writing poems that they write letters to their congressmen. Both would be equally effective, he reasoned. I once asked National Book Critic’s Circle Award winner Troy Jollimore why he finds political poems difficult to write, and he worried about preaching to the converted: “The people who know those are good values are already on my side; the people that don’t think they’re good values aren’t going to be convinced by my siding up with good values.” He has a point, too. A poem isn’t an argument. A poem’s purpose isn’t to persuade—persuasion is for op-eds and campaign ads. Poetry doesn’t argue; it argonauts.

So keeping that in mind, re-read your political poem. Is it cheer-leading, or is it trail-blazing? Is it just a bullhorn for someone else’s bullshit, or does it reach deeper into that abyss to haul up some new creature?

Last month, an Orange County poet named David Miller wrote in a political poem, an elegy for the personified American Dream: “I ran when I heard you crying/ like a phone, no one told me how alone you are.” Now that’s what Shelley meant when he said that poetry “purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being.”

Be honest, does your political poem really purge the film of familiarity, or is it just more mosquito guts on the windshield? If it’s the former, then by all means share it widely!

This is the year for purging.