by Ian Syson
Peter Dale Scott on the FLASHPOINT web site asks the question contained below:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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 .
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
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'
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
2. Lionel Fogarty
Read from reader
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.
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:
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.
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
Precisely where this popular ballad tradition lost its directly political dimension is a good question. Precisely when did the ‘separation' occur?