The Trouble With Politics and Poets

4 Oct

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the intersection between politics and poetry, after reading David Wojahn’s article on the condition of political poetry today in the summer issue of The Writer’s Chronicle. I’m working on addressing it in a longer piece, but in the meantime I wanted to point to a short and smart post about poetry and politics at Reginald Shepard’s blog. I think he captures the limits of poetry as a political tool:

George Oppen gave up writing poetry for several years in favor of political activism, because he believed neither that poetry could change society nor that it should be subordinated to an agenda. In Oppen’s words, “If you decide to do something politically, you do something with political efficacy. And if you write poetry, you write poetry, not something you hope, or deceive yourself into believing, can save people who are suffering.” Several years ago, I was asked by someone I had just met whether my poetry was Afrocentric. I told him that I didn’t know what he meant by that term, and he said, “You know, dedicated to the liberation of black people everywhere.” My only answer was, “I don’t think that poems can do that.”

I’m in general agreement that the sort of work poetry does isn’t the sort of work that is necessarily useful (or perhaps, most valuable) to politics or political action. If you want to change someone’s mind or rail against something, write a polemic. And as Shepard notes in the comments to his post, a work’s value is separate from the politics of it’s creator; good art can be the product of bad politics (and vice versa).

My point of departure, however, comes when Shepard discusses the value of poetry in response to a commenter:

While much visual art is deeply enmeshed in the market economy (even though its value as a commodity is based on its transcendence of commodity status), poems (which, in Levi-Strauss’s characterization of music, are virtual objects whose shadows alone are real) have neither use value nor exchange value. As my reference to Levi-Strauss indicates, they aren’t even really things at all. (Is “the poem” this printed copy or that handwritten copy or this oral performance or this mental representation? Etc. etc.)

It isn’t clear to me why poetry can’t be part of market exchanges; you can print books, and sell them in bookstores (or by yourself, on the street). And insofar as we can’t ever say which poem is the “true poem” (a handwritten poem or the one delivered during a reading), that’s why we have intellectual property rights like copyright protection; the market itself can’t make an idea exclusive, so we use the government to enforce a form of property rights held by creators. But we don’t even have to be as concerned with profit and property rights to argue that art has value in a capitalist economy; we carve out space for works that we find valuable, but that markets tends to underproduce by creating big grant agencies (like the NEA) and subsiding museums at the government level, and giving tax breaks for charitable donations to universities, non-profit art programs, and (again) museums at the private level.

The sort of economy Shepard is describing isn’t one I recognize, or one that appears in an economics class. I think Shepard (and other poets) would respond that this is the point, that this isn’t economic orthodoxy as practiced by economists, but I don’t think he’s describing the workings of a market economy in practice.


One Response to “The Trouble With Politics and Poets”


  1. Why Oh Why Can’t We Have More Economically Literate English Majors? « Pax Americana: Culture, Politics, and Ineffectual Debate - October 16, 2007

    […] then Lobanov-Rostovsky makes an argument I’ve read before, but still doesn’t make any sense: Still, I find this concept surprising when we apply it to […]

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