In this day and age, is it possible to write a poem that isn’t political? Even in ignoring political and social events, one might argue that a poem is political in its choice to not acknowledge what’s happening around it. But what about poets who choose to engage with social and political causes? In this subset of poems, the idea of what makes a poem “political” varies widely. David Wojahn discusses the need for a political poem to engage with society from the personally authentic perspective of the poet; on the other side of the argument, a poet like Marvin Bell feels that simply the act of writing a poem is political. Many of Robert Frost’s poems engage with the political, though the meanings might be understated or at least somewhat subtle. Emily Dickinson’s work, too, reckons with widely-held notions of her time and often questions these notions. All of this is to say that there are many different ways of approaching the political through poetry. Is one approach preferable or more successful to another or does it really just boil down to a question of taste? For example, how do we respond to a poem that tells us, straight-faced, what the poet thinks or perhaps even what we should think? I tend to prefer a poet like Frost who often provides two readings: one surface-level message for a reader not willing to dig that deep and another that calmly questions an institution like organized religion, as in a poem like “Directive” that ends: “Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.” If anything, there is only more confusion at the end of the poem, though a reader with perhaps a more optimistic or generous view of the world might interpret it differently. One contemporary poet who seems to be engaging in the political poem in a way unlike any other writer is Peter Gizzi in his latest book The Outernationale. Gizzi manages to write with a certain subtlety when dealing with the political—which, in turn, allows the reader to draw his or her own conclusions based on the speaker’s observations that are heavily steeped in a Romantic tradition—and in the idea of the role perception plays in our everyday lives.
The opening poem in Gizzi’s book is a sequence called “A Panic That Can Still Come Upon Me,” a poem that introduces many of the major themes in the book, but especially the ideas of isolation and fragmentation. Gizzi’s use of the subordinate clause creates a sense of repetition that becomes trance-like in its rhythms:
If today and today I am calling aloud If I break into pieces of glitter on asphalt bits of sun, the din if tires whine on wet pavement everything humming
This sense of dependence shows the manner in which the speaker is—at least in a sense—reliant on the panic and also on outside forces. Is it that these outside forces remind us that we exist? In Gizzi’s poem the outside stimuli are clearly American (“Apache fire,…administrators / who can say I am found, [and]…children / taken down in schools”), but what I find so fascinating is that Gizzi does not approach these images with a tone of disgust or hatred. Rather, the speaker here demonstrates that without these outside forces, he will not exist—it’s a troubling thought, but it’s authentic and honest. The “If” that carries the poem forward (and appears in each of its five sections), works to both question the landscape where the speaker lives and also allows the speaker to feel alive by questioning the reality he sees, no matter how terrible the images might be.
The second section of the poem opens with a different voice, one that is more sure than the one in the first section: “It isn’t alright to want just anything / all the time.” The speaker goes on to address the sky and how the “day unbraids its pretty light.” These images of nature might not seem political on the surface, but the fact that Gizzi places this speaker away from the twenty-four hour news channels of the first section suggests the speaker’s ability to block out these images of death and destruction by immersing him or herself in nature—and in doing so, the speaker comments on perception and how “This must be all there is / right now in the world.” But this reflective pause does not last long, for even in nature, a question arises with the familiar “If” of the first section that is addressed to an observation of nature:
If the sun throbs like a drum every five minutes what can we do with this […] If every afternoon gravity and fire it’s like that here undressed, unwound
The progression takes the speaker back to images of war with the pun of “undressed” and “unwound” suggesting a wound being dressed or undressed. Up against the realities of “gravity and fire,” war is as real and prevalent as the forces of nature experienced by the speaker, so much so that he or she even observes that this moment “must be all there is.”
This pastoral realization brings the speaker directly back to “If” and the address shifts to a “you” in the poem, which brings up the idea of how Gizzi uses the lyrical “I” in a political manner, especially in this poem, but in other moments throughout the book as well. The “I” here strikes me as being an American “I,” much in the same tradition of Ginbserg and Whitman, though the “I” in Gizzi’s poem constantly struggles to make sense of the images and paradoxical moments that exist in the day-to-day. I’m not sure who Gizzi visualizes speaking these poems, but their general nature makes them especially accessible—in large part because of the way in which they grapple with reality and how unreal it can be. The third section of the poem returns to the voice of the first, turns us to a landscape where the speaker is “a tiger inside the DMZ” and asks “if speech can free us” without finishing the thought, suggesting that perhaps it cannot. The poem wrestles with this notion of speech and freedom in a way that suggests that rights do not always empower or free us—they become worthless when the power and right to question authority becomes impossible, as it seemed to be when the war in Iraq started. A marginalized voice is the one we see here—a voice that questions the power of free speech, the power of “everyday strife.” The speaker asks what happens if he or she dies and “begin to lose consciousness / and the flag,” which speaks to the idea of identity and the role that being a citizen plays in this view of self—once the speaker begins to lose consciousness, he or she is no longer a citizen but only a body. Being alive forces one to acknowledge both who one is as well as the country that one is a part of—the images of war and violence are attached to the idea of “America” and no matter where this speaker places him or herself on the political scale, the speaker still feels a sense of responsibility for the war and its repercussions in the world.
Before discussing more about the poem, I want to return briefly to David Wojahn’s essay, “Maggie’s Farm No More: The Fate of Political Poetry,” in which he states that a political poem should “combine social engagement with personal authenticity, yet…not proceed from predetermined definitions of the social or the personal” (26). Only three sections into the opening poem, one sees how Gizzi works above and beyond this idea of what Wojahn feels a political poem should do. Part of this seems to be a result of Gizzi’s openness to what a poem’s purpose is and the way in which Gizzi’s poem controls the emotional situation. I’m not arguing that Gizzi does not direct the poem, but rather that he does not begin a poem knowing where it will go. The shape, the direction, and the tone of this poem allow the grammatical construction to push the poem forward, which actually does fit into Wojahn’s definition, but the resulting poem also does something different than the two examples that Wojahn includes in his essay, especially the Lawrence Joseph poem. In fact, “A Panic That Can Still Come Upon Me” is a poem that can be read as more about perception than about political matters—but the concept of the political resides underneath the tone and content of the poem. I see a sense of “social engagement” and “personal authenticity,” but Gizzi’s work functions in a way that both engages with the political and also allows the poem to act as a lyrical exploration of what perception can be. Something Wojahn fails to comment on is the intention a writer has when sitting down to write a poem and the two examples he specifically references seem to suggest that the concept of the political was there long before the poets wrote the first words of their respective poem. Gizzi’s poems work much differently because of his openness to the subject, which allows reality and imagination to function both in opposition and in conjunction with one another.
In the final section of Gizzi’s poem, the speaker asks, “why shouldn’t I come in from the cold” and considers a “monument” as well as “the grass and the plate it grows on.” This intersection of nature and the political, a monument perhaps to the dead from a war gone by, takes this poem away from being simply a post-modern exploration of perception and allows the themes in it to become more Romantic in nature--an important difference from other poets and poems engaging with politics. In fact, the poem ends with finality, a response to the subordinate “If” from the first section:
if I wanted to go all over a word and live inside its name, so be it There is my body and the idea of my body the surf breaking and the picture of a wave
Wojahn might ask how exactly these lines can be considered political, but in the context of the poem, the speaker has moved away from personal guilt by accepting reality. The thought of a wave becomes as real as the wave, recalling the “Apache fire” and “burning fuel” from earlier in the poem. These images are constant realities, even if they might be occurring thousands of miles away on the other side of the world.
Other poems in Gizzi’s collection manage to be political through his use of elegy. In one of the title poems from the book (of which there are two), Gizzi connects the fall of Rome to an eventual (or present, perhaps?) fall of America with a mention of “coliseum-like” sand and with the “leaves arch[ing] over everything / …so democratic.” Even though the poem strikes me as being elegiac, the more I read it, the more I began to consider what exactly it was elegizing: the innocent Iraqis dead from a senseless war? The soldiers? The moment before “the dialectical / awakening everyone / is hankering to embrace”? Gizzi’s poem “The Outernationale” is perhaps elegiac, but its main purpose seems to be simply raising the question of what a poem should do in the current political and social contexts in which it exists, even if the contexts are entirely fragmented to the point of senselessness.
Four writers discuss this very issue in the article “Does Poetry Have a Social Function?” at the Poetry Foundation’s Online Journal (the article originally appeared in Poetry Magazine in January of 2007). The article is essentially a conversation about the purpose of poetry and the issues raised here are quite applicable to this discussion of Gizzi’s work. Daisy Fried comments that “poetry’s social function comes not from what it means but from what it is…to shake us out of our standard American buy-stuff-and-watch-TV half life [and a] poem’s content matters very little to that utility.” Their discussion ventures into a conversation about how poetry can exist in a consumer-based America—and obviously the implications of this discussion are quite political. Fried goes on to comment that “many of us are hungry for poems that look outward, not just into the self or into what seems like another kind of narcissism, a turning away via the knee-jerk (therefore empty) ‘avant garde’ linguistic gesture,” and yet I see the title poem in Gizzi’s collection as functioning both by looking inward and outward; in fact, he doesn’t seem to see a difference between the two views:
…time seems a trip, come back, little sheen of products in rows behind glass. We went to the store and why not we go to the moon jeweled box on a shelf.
The poem here ventures into a commentary on consumerism, capitalism, and ownership, and by using the pronoun “we,” Gizzi creates a moment that both looks outward and inward in regard to this desire which is not necessarily human, but does tend to be American. The moon becomes just another object to be owned and, in this brief moment, Gizzi brings up the race with Russia to stake claim on the moon and the political ramifications of this race. What makes Gizzi’s poem so successful is that he doesn't directly comment on or critique the idea of consumerism. Too many political poems tend to look outward and make a comment that becomes didactic or forced; the use of “we” frees Gizzi because the speaker in the poem includes himself in with the group of people who live in a time “when the administration / of money flows backward.” A poem that does something similar is Marvin Bell’s “Coffee,” where “[t]he house smells of coffee” and the speaker has just “dreamt of coffee” and notes that the “dream of coffee is a wartime dream.” Bell’s poem grapples with the idea of capitalism, much like Gizzi’s, but the shift to the war leads toward a didactic statement that doesn’t allow much room for the reader to interpret: “It’s his war and my coffee. Get out of my house, / Mr. President. You can get your own coffee.” I don’t mean to say that Bell’s poem isn’t as successful as Gizzi’s, but the intentions of the poet direct the poem toward the final statement without allowing the poem to follow a natural progression set by the language or the lines. Bell’s poem seems to meet both Wojahn’s requirements as well as the ones set by Fried in creating both “social engagement” and “personal authenticity” as well looking outward through the use of coffee as a trope to reach the final directive, but there is something to be said for subtlety and allowing a trope to do the work.
In addition to its subtlety, “The Outernationale” is a profoundly effective political poem in other ways. The main political question it wrestles with is identity and how to make sense of the self in a country as large and diverse as America. Gizzi seems to be struggling with the very thing that Whitman praised: an America with many voices and the manner in which they form one singular voice. In Gizzi’s work, there are just as many American voices, but they are often opposing and polarizing, creating less unity than the idea of an “American” voice in Whitman’s work. Gizzi’s shift in this section of the sequence to plural pronouns creates a unifying sense among the varied voices he hears:
We find purpose in the game and together, this crucial passage given flight when detail disappears into a crowd that too quickly invested and then discarded power.
Indeed, “before we were happy / we were unhappy,” Gizzi writes earlier in this section, and this simple observation says a lot about the ways in which attitudes shift from one side to the next and the
…dark indigo setting on the glass just sitting there. Reminding us days gallop into grass rushing wind into miles of cable.
Gizzi’s use of the window and “miles of cable” shows a familiar shift that occurs throughout this collection: the thought of nature leads towards the consideration of how technology further separates us from not only nature, but also from each other; even if the glass can be seen through and the “miles of cable” exist to transmit information, both the glass and the cable separate: the glass, physically and the cable through the way that media has a tendency to polarize. This sense of separation is something the speaker in “The Outernationale” seeks to undo in the last two lines of the poem: “when I asked what happened / I meant what happened to us?” This movement seems quite political as well. A question about one person is a question about everyone, but the question mark that Gizzi uses makes this moment of the poem even more intriguing: it introduces self-doubt into the statement as well as a sense of hesitancy, which leads the reader back to the title of the poem and the book itself, an allusion to the song “The Internationale,” which praised socialism in the nineteenth century. Gizzi’s title recalls a time of social change and in doing so would seem to suggest that it is time for another type of change, one that looks outward rather than inward as this poem, and the book as a whole, suggests.
Many of the themes mentioned here are dealt with throughout the book, but near the end, Gizzi returns again to the form of the long poem—and titles it “The Outernationale” as well, a reiteration of the book’s political implications. The other poems discussed above have a sense of hesitancy in the language, but this poem does not have any hint of reticence. Gizzi moves forward, opening with a question: “So the bird’s in the hand / and now what?” and from there the poem opens up to explore the role nature plays in our present world. Much like the above-mentioned Frost poem, “Design,” Gizzi tells us that the trees “might be saying / all we need to be here” but there are simply too many distractions—or as Gizzi suggests—routines: “Everyday weather / and the everyday weatherman” and “Rain… / falling everywhere / around the boy falling digitally.” Later, the speaker in the poem notes that “The box is spitting electro- / magnetic lies into the room / again.” Gizzi’s voice here is quite different from the previous poems—and the certainty has more power largely due to the poems that come before it. Later in this section, the speaker comments that there is “Nothing more personal / than headlines,” an idea that our everyday being, our existence even, is tied to the news in one way or another. So what does the speaker say we should do with this knowledge? Are we to allow the panic from the opening poem to take over and let the “end result [be] worry, chaos”? Eventually the poem moves toward a meditation on desire and on what drives us. The speaker’s commentary is political on some level, of course, as a desire for power—or even food—can drive someone to selfish acts, whether it be waging war on a large scale or inflicting violence on a single person. The speaker wants to “expose doubt itself / to open up / the mechanics of want” in seeking to understand desire. Perception and its power returns in the poem:
If we could say the world has changed, it has changed. If we say the world is the same then so it is. But nothing changes everything and we know this. We earn this the hard way.
As with the other poem titled “The Outernationale,” the speaker admits that poetry cannot change everything, though it might seem to be the only art form uninfluenced or disrupted by the destructive power of capitalism. Speaking generally, poetry can be written with disregard for money, power, or fame, and even so, Gizzi seems to admit that the only thing that can change everything is perception, not poetry. The constellations still stare down and “the little tightness / that keeps us wanting / … looking hard into the dark.” What is it that we are looking for? Gizzi’s answer is simple: “that one day / we might find ourselves lit up.” That this line directly follows the list of constellations suggests a desire to create a myth or framework that others will look to for understanding. In this poem, Gizzi highlights a common human emotion and desire: the need to be remembered—and ideally to be remembered in positive terms.
As Wojahn notes in his article, many poets are writing about the war, as evidenced by the “Poets Against the War” website which includes poems that seem to be less successful simply because of their didactic quality. Interestingly, Peter Gizzi’s “Protest Song” from The Outernationale appears on this site, but Gizzi’s poem stands out from the others. His poem is one of negation, rather than active participation with the war and the ideas behind it:
This is not a declaration of love or song of war not a tractate, autonym, or apologia This won’t help when the children are dying no answer on the way to dust Neither anthem to rally nor flag flutter will bring back the dead, their ashes flying This is not a bandage or hospital tent not relief or the rest after Not a wreath, lilac, or laurel sprig not a garden of earthly delights
Gizzi’s poem, a protest, speaks to the fact that poetry cannot bring the dead back to life or even be a “bandage or hospital tent.” In expressing poetry’s shortcomings, Gizzi suggests that we must arrive at something greater in order for the war to stop and for the children to stop dying. Is this poem a political one without the title? Of course. But the true power of Gizzi’s work can be seen in the place where the poems arrive—they don’t necessarily start with “delight and end in wisdom.” Gizzi’s poems end holding a mirror up to the reader, perhaps the most effective political commentary of all.
Burt, Stephen, Daisy Fried, Major Jackson, and Emily Warn. “Does Poetry Have a Social Function?” Poetry Foundation. 15 Nov. 2007. http://poetryfoundation.org/archive/feature.html?id=178919