To Understand Politics, Try Reading Poetry

When hasn’t poetry been political? Deep dives into the history of political conflicts and long-festering societal grievances from previous centuries can include the discovery of satirical verses, mocking stanzas, and incisive parodies. In the mid-twentieth century, the obscenity trial surrounding Allen Ginsberg’s Howl revealed multiple facets to the relationship between poetry and politics: Here was a work that offered commentary on aspects of American society and was assailed by a reactionary streak within that same society. That said, in the current decade, there seems to be an increased visibility for poetry that addresses pressing societal questions – and which offers its readers a heightened perspective on the most frequently debated subjects of the current moment.

For readers who embrace the stylistic variety and experimentation that frequently emerges when reading contemporary poetry, there’s an urgency to the form that allows it to convey moods, images, and themes in a much more direct way than prose. In recent years, certain books, notably Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, have channeled a feeling of political outrage about a number of pressing societal questions. Citizen, like Rankine’s earlier Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, addresses questions of race, gender, and alienation in contemporary America. A 2015 Slate piece about Citizen was titled The New Printing of Citizen Adds a Haunting Message About Police Brutality, and the book has become essential reading for those concerned with race in America, along with more traditional works of nonfiction.

The freedom that poetry offers writers has led to myriad recent works that have grappled with a host of pressing issues, even as they have also memorably demonstrated a stylistic command of language. Sam Sax’s Madness raises questions of physical and mental health throughout. In a 2015 interview, when the book was in progress, he said that it “takes as its subject the history of Western medicine and where it intersects with desire.”

This coincides with sociopolitical questions in a number of ways. Perhaps the most powerful and resonant one comes late in the book via the poem “On Conversion Therapy,” which features one of the most emotionally jarring uses of a line break you’re likely to encounter:

“of course i tried to take my life
into my own hands”

The poem itself, as its title suggests, is a harrowing take on conversion therapy – something that a number of conservative politicians have supported. And the fact that Sax uses linguistic precision to convey an overwhelming sense of anguish and outrage turns this moment into something immeasurably powerful.

Sometimes what’s unsaid can be just as powerful. One of the standout works in Morgan Parker’s recent collection, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, is “The President Has Never Said the Word Black.” The poem first appeared in 2016, and can be read as addressing President Obama’s silence on certain matters regarding race. Here, too, language and structure create something haunting – the way that the space between words on the page summons the words unsaid in speeches and statements.

“The president be like
We lose a young boy today.”

Parker covers a wide array of styles in the poems contained in the collection, everything from works that read starkly on the page to ones that address pop culture. “99 Problems,” for instance, is literally a list of ninety-nine problems, from the personal (“6. One afternoon the dog killed/ a bird in our garage”) to the societal (“36-42. American History”). It gives this book a sense of scale, and it demonstrates the interconnectedness of the personal and the political.

Many of the poems in Yrsa Daley-Ward’s bone have a sprawling scope, taking on a powerful narrative energy along the way as they deal with questions of family, race, and religion. Some of the most resonant works in the book deal with conflicts between the conservatism of tradition and the freedom that comes with finding your own identity. In “sabbath,” the central character is frowned upon when entering a church, but nonetheless finds power there:

“the skirt is split too high for church
but the collection box is yours.
You look like an actress,
says the usher.
Sit here. Right here. Relax.

Daley-Ward’s precision with language allows these poems to embody an abundance of details: In some cases, there are lives and conflicts conveyed in a handful of words. A different form of precision is at work in the poems in Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead, which frequently invoke contemporary American politics, often in haunting ways. “summer, somewhere,” which opens the book, begins with the image of the victims of racist violence being reborn; it’s alternately haunting and transcendent.

Later in the collection, Smith addresses police brutality and state violence more directly, pairing two short poems across from one another: “dear ghost i made” and “dear badge number.” The result is a hauntingly empathic work that constantly shifts its scope, gradually encompassing more and more without ever losing its perspective on contemporary America. In a recent interview, Smith put it succinctly: “We know that poems are something that helps make sense of what the heart is trying to say.”

So, yes – you can find some of the most essential contemporary writing about modern society in the poetry section of your local bookstore. This is far from a new phenomenon, but it’s well worth repeating: For a greater understanding of the world around us – and, perhaps, a call to action – sometimes poetry is the ideal place to look.