ACL 1002
Studying Poetry and Poetics
Footscray Park

Lecture 7
Poetry and Politics

by Ian Syson

Peter Dale Scott on the FLASHPOINT web site asks the question contained below:


How far back must we search
the source of this separation
through which poetry has shrunk

from being the truth of the tribe
to a tolerated indulgence
in a productive world?

According to the argument implied in the question, there was a time when the functional and poetic facets of poetry were one and the same.

Poetry was a discourse which told the ‘truth of the tribe' in poetic form. At some stage in history poetry seemed to lose its political function and become mere ‘poetic' or ‘aesthetic' or ‘individualistic' poetry.

Perhaps it was in the romantic period when poets retreated into their private thoughts:

Wordsworth's Daffodils

Sia Figiel

The Daffodils
(the other version)

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills
When all at once I saw a crowd
A host, of golden daffodils

I wandered and wondered
Wondered and wondered

What the fuck is a daffodil?

Youtube club with another version of the Daffodils

Poetry as political response

Something that fascinated me for a while is that the first responses to felt oppression often have poetic dimensions.

When under duress the immediate response of some people is to write poetically about it. It satisfies some deep psychological need. That these poems and songs are then shared is also telling. There's a broad cultural assumption that at some points in our lives things get to a point of such seriousness and importance that poetry has to be wheeled in.


The assertion that everything and anything is political is a contemporary commonplace.

This is a legitimate recognition of two things:

  1. The way in which conventional politics impinges on the whole of life.
    Climate change and the GFC are the most recent and obvious examples. Our newspapers and other reading material are constantly engaging in and mediating political arguments even when they are not explicitly doing so.

  2. The political nature of most human activities
    Even the minutiae of our lives and social networks are governed by power relations and struggles
    – where you sit in a lecture
    – An argument over who does the dishes
    can take on a political dimension.

We might see the two aspects as 1) social and 2) personal.

In the course of their lives people respond to these political dimensions, often in political ways:

  • activism
  • membership of political parties
  • alternative lifestyles
  • apathy
  • as we've seen already responses are sometimes poetic

Perhaps every poem written has at its core a political function insofar as all our individual actions are made in a political context. I'd suggest that whether poetry be seen as individual or social it's not hard to see that somewhere nearby there is a political dimension.

However, there is a paradox here: insofar as claiming everything is political is a little like claiming nothing is political. If everything is political, then how can we discriminate between the political importance of one thing over another; of one field of activity over another.

In this lecture I am talking about a stream of poetry called political poetry, which is different from non-political poetry -- but I mustn't forget that such a separation is very difficult to establish in the first place.

What is political poetry?

In a sense it's almost obvious what political poetry is:

  • poetry that talks about politics or
  • poetry that puts forward a political complaint or program

Read from Brad Evans' introduction and Bakowski's 'War is an Old Story'

But what if these poems have no effect? And the general response is ‘Oh yeah, there's someone with a political axe to grind mouthing off again.' Indeed, much poetry of political struggle and complaint has sunk without a trace and without having made a mark - having been dismissed in this very way.

Shelley's sonnet 'England in 1819' might be a good and fiery poem but what does the fact that it was not published until after it could have any immediate impact mean for its political effectiveness .

England in 1819

An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king,--
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn,--mud from a muddy spring,--
Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know,
But leech-like to their fainting country cling,
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow,--
A people starved and stabbed in the untilled field,--
An army, which liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield,--
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;
Religion Christless, Godless--a book sealed;
A Senate,--Time's worst statute unrepealed,--
Are graves, from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestous day.

And it's a valid point. How political can words be if they are not communicated?

Perhaps we need to expand the definition of political poetry to poetry that also makes a political impact

  • Political poetry then is more than about mere content but is also to do with effect.
  • erhaps we can even go as far as suggesting that political poetry is not necessarily political in terms of its direct or literal meaning -- but moreso in its effect.
  • hink about paradoxical situation of poems that deliberately avoid politics (pastoral lyrics in the Soviet Union) having deeply political effects -- where avoiding certain kinds of politics sends a political message. Some Soviet poets paid for this with their lives.

But we needn't reduce the definition to poetry that which is intended to make an impact. Some of the most important political poetry has been written with far from political intentions -- or at least very different intentions from those which we might attribute to the poet.

Some poems are born political; some poems have politics thrust upon them.

A good example of the latter is the Elizabethan love poem 'There is a lady sweet and kind'

There is a lady sweet and kind,
Was never face so pleased my mind;
I did but see her passing by
Yet I shall love her till I die

This found an echo with Australian prime minister Bob Menzies.

He quoted the immortal lines in reference to Queen Elizabeth II -- with political intentions very different from the poet's.

But the ditty's tremendously important political impact were also very different from Menzies' intentions.

It's still used by republicans as a measure of how embarrassing such toadying to royalty is.

So: Political poetry is that which acts rather than reflects on politics, society and culture. It is poetry which changes or prevents changes in attitudes and political systems.

Given all this this it becomes quite difficult to prescribe appropriate form and content for political poetry.

Perhaps we need to look at examples in order to think through ways of understanding poems politically.

I'll talk about two Aboriginal poets who are important and have had significant political impact but whose works are not widely read:

1. Oodgeroo (Noonuccal)

Read from reader

  • Powerful, pessimistic writing which while expressing the presence in Australia of literate and poetic aboriginality – a deeply political action in the early 1960s – buys somewhat into the dying race mythology. Or does it?

2. Lionel Fogarty

Read from reader

  • A unique poet
  • Anger
  • Disruptive use of language
  • Destroying the English language, so despite a kind of obscurity that his writing sometimes has, this obscurity and disrespect for english is part of the political point.
  • Deliberately confrontational
  • Paradox of intent and effect

These politicised and activist poets can be contrasted with poets who feel that poetry is not the place for politics. Those complained about by Brad Evans.

I feel to this day, that the kind of poetry that gets the most publicity in Australia is poetry that is dragging behind in its traditions, caught somewhere between a pastoral inheritance and a need to foster the romantic values preached by the likes of Keats and Wordsworth. This poetry fears confrontation, debate, direction and anything which is vaguely offensive gets the reject slip. The reason being that most editors are scared shitless about providing any kind of material which may offend and / or feed a lawsuit, they prefer to tread carefully on eggs that have long turned rotten.

I feel that Australian poetry requires a significant improvement in the way it relates to real life.

On the other hand, some believe that there is no connection between poetry and politics and that any attempt to join the two is an intellectual and aesthetic error usually committed by those with a political barrow to push.

This argument is, however, in itself a political use of poetry for conservative ends.

The very separation of the two is a way that political conservatism depoliticises poetry.

As suggested in the opening point of the lecture: this separation is only a recent phenomenon.

When did the separation occur?

I suggested earlier that the romantic period is one possibility: when Wordsworth and co. withdrew from community and struggle into their private personal reflections.

Yet for every withdrawn and reflective Wordsworth we have an angry, protesting Shelley or Blake


These two poems (however literary) are also deeply political poems written in response to the Peterloo massacre. But throughout history we can see such angry poetic effusions from leading poets. From John Milton to Les Murray.

What is significant about Shelley's revolutionary poetry is the similarities it shares with another tradition of poetry or balladry. Compare with the anonymous poetic response:

Soon shall fair freedom's sons their right regain,
Soon shall all Europe join the hallowed strain,
Of Liberty & Freedom, Equal Rights & Laws,
Heaven's choicest blessings crown this glorious cause,
While meanly, tyrants, crawling minions too,
Tremble at their feats performed on Peterloo.

This raises the suggestion that there was an important connection made between the romantic poets and the ballad tradition. The ballad comes out of an oral tradition which demanded several things of its poems.

  • strong rhythms and rhymes
  • refrains and other forms of repetition
  • narrative
  • often excessive
  • controversial
  • performance more important than author
  • method of publication in broadside.

Australia's first non-aboriginal poetry is this kind of material which was brought to Australia either orally or surreptitiously. read transportation's lament

Development of native tradition Moreton Bay

Manifests in the 1890s as a strong and diverse body of work


Freedom on the Wallaby

Precisely where this popular ballad tradition lost its directly political dimension is a good question. Precisely when did the ‘separation' occur?