Francesco Petrarca, better known as Petrarch, compares a poet to a bee who makes honey with nectar gathered from many different flowers.
Francisco Sánchez de las Brozas, better known as El Brocense described the power and originality of the art of poetry in terms of force. The poet is an imitator who defeats the imitable with the power of his erudition, mastering it by force, conquering it. Like a warlord, a poet should not hesitate to make what belongs to another his own.
While Hannah Arendt distinguishes between Dichtung (poetry), Diktum (what can be expressed), and Diktat (an agent acting upon another in manner that must almost be called violent), she assigns poetry the function of breaking the vicious cycle; in her writings, poetry draws a person into the process of conversing with himself.
Capitalism, in weathering its own permanent crisis, has long since begun to lose the economic instruments that enable it to function as an active agent and is thus seeking to buttress itself by manipulating people, building itself into the forms of their collective consciousness.
All four of them are strolling among the flowers and the smoking shell holes.
There’s a particular way someone walks when they’re crossing a thundering battlefield, and it comes from the desire to get a closer look at the ground; the lower you bend, the better you can see the little cracks in the earth.
The reasons that drove me, a poet best known for lyrical poems that are not written from the perspective of a subject, to turn towards politics four years ago, come from the very constitution of my poetic process. The route to that realization was difficult, however; the cracks in the earth meandered like a snake, or murmured like runnels of emptiness, without becoming written words.
“Subjectless lyric,” when founded on the strata of tradition, contains not only the necessary semantic potential for enstrangement from one’s cultural, national, or other identity, but also the potential to resist violence, in as much as the “I” is always complicit in the violent discourses involved in any form of power, regardless of its discursive regimes or external circumstances.
Poetry, by entering into an open dialogue with power (and thus facing the constant risk of plunging into the abyss of monologue), even when all other points of contact have been deformed, is capable of not only articulating a civic position, but also of mobilizing the individual and collective consciousness against the manipulations inflicted by those in power. Poetry is a crack that opens up in the air, the tectonic fault line where a new space breaks away from the continent of blood-soaked literal language.
The point of reference for political poetry is reality—both external and internal—and the politics of human inner reality, of the “I,” is the starting point of a chain reaction of liberation from oppressive contexts. A very old religious song tells us that Christ can trample down death by death (morte mortem calcavit). When we’ve trampled down one crack with another, we can stroll through the trenches and tank traps with our friends.
So what does political poetry actually do? Its apparently binary mode of address (directed at both power and itself) is actually unitary, since the “internal” components inherent in violence which it addresses are also always located inside the speaking “I.”
Poetic speech built on the absence of a subject—or that explicitly eliminates its subject before the reader’s eyes—is you; your “I” is always getting jammed in the cracks between the flowers and the explosions.
There are a lot of things you can appropriate when you’re strolling across a battlefield with someone, but you’d be best served by appropriating new rhythm for your steps and new optics for your gaze.
Politics appropriated a lot of rhetorical devices and tropes from poetry—especially repetition. Repetition became more than an element of the discourse of power; it became the foundation of every wretchedly factual “dispatch from the warzone.” Repetition feels ridiculous in contemporary poems. We know that it’s dishonest, tainted with violence. Contemporary poetry should be free of any form of violence; we can feel it in our guts that repetition has no place there.
Things are going badly when it comes to metaphor, too, but at least violence has a poorly developed imagination; violence is encapsulated in its own inability to achieve lasting recognition, and its limits soon rise up to confront it.
Culture has given us the metabole the metarealists were so enamored with; the mode of thought reflected in Ivan Zhdanov’s line “the unfinished gesture of a tree—whirlwind” is fundamentally unusable in the discourse of power, and so it opens up a road into a domain free of violence, demonstrating a mode of liberation.
They say viam supervadet vadens—the path will be overcome by the person who walks it—but the path has lost its rhythm—that makes it weak. He should walk in a way that makes it stronger.
Petersburg, as the bearer of the Empire’s spirit, helped Taras Shevchenko to elucidate an unbelievably painful sense of the binary opposition between freedom and unfreedom at its heart. During the reign of Nicholas I, he used that awareness as the foundation of his comedy “The Dream,” yet not all of the vast weight of living in an enslaved Ukraine could be melted down and poured out as a text. The degree of courage required for a young poet to do what he did at the time he did it is inconceivable.
Nicholas I, whose person became the embodiment of ascendant absolutism, began the construction of railroads in Russia. He ordered that the track gauge be expanded to ensure that potential enemies’ rolling stock could not reach Moscow and Petersburg unhindered. That broader gauge was a sign of isolation from a Europe fraught with upheavals and revolutions, from Europe with its interminable bubbling of thought. It was the ultimate symbol of that era, more so even than the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, an edifice embodying the Russian spirit and the full might of autocracy.
In 1941, the broad Russian gauge prevented Army Group Center’s advance on Moscow from being fully resupplied, which enabled Soviet troops to resist the fascist invasion more effectively.
These facts are crouched in the cracks in the earth, like soldiers in foxholes, ready to defend themselves against being included in poetic thought.
Hugh MacDiarmid initially wrote in Scots, in an effort to spark a Scottish cultural renaissance, but soon enough he began to sue “the language of the conqueror” in order to reach a broader audience. Withdrawals from radicalism, exceptions to the law that conquerors must be hated—this is the emptiness full to bursting from which the subject of poetic speech can be molded, as if from earth.
This earthen man smells like the roots of flowers and grasses, and also like the disintegration of the bullets buried in him over all those centuries.
Political conflicts are always based on a sense of the “otherness” of one’s rival. The opponent does not and cannot bear any resemblance to humanity, and any dialogue with him, if it is even possible, will be a dialogue between beings of different species. Edwin Morgan understands that very well; his poems describe political conflicts in nonsense language, which actually proves to be the path to compromise.
The earthen man should smell like the roots of roses and thistles as he observes Burns and Keats drawing inspiration from the same landscapes.
Thinking of poetry as a black-and-white substance that can be either for those in power or against them won’t get us anywhere. Making poets’ spiritual instruments more primitive is of no use, except perhaps to the world’s counter-extremism bureaus. As early as the Res Gestae Divi Augusti and other texts dedicated to Augustus, one can see a complex interweaving of values and multifaceted thematic play being achieved in the context of a close association with those in power.
No literary text—and especially a poetic one—can be reduced to a thesis or set of theses. They will never be a substitute for the text. The illusion that such an exchange could ever be possible is an instrument of propaganda.
A poet’s membership in a particular political camp is nothing compared to the content of his work, the way it describes their experience of the world and how it is ordered. Thus, the Aeneid need not be viewed exclusively as a panegyric if we consider the other themes woven into the text.
Attention to detail, to particularity—that’s what we need in discussions of political poetry, not generalizing theoretical gestures.
Political poetry has always reinforced identities—racial, national, religious, gender. “We’re Marxists.” “We’re liberals.” “We’re Catholics.” These slogans not only root any given human “I” in a field of battle, but also cement it there, like a bunker with a black mouth that will go on yawning decades after the war is over, reeking of homeless men’s piss and beckoning to the children who come to the field to play.
The building of reinforced concrete identities goes hand in hand with the anthropocentrism that produces crises in so many domains. An object-oriented ontology, realized through poetry, effaces the subject-object opposition, relieves man of the habitual burden of being the ontological “center of the world” and presents him as an ordinary object among other, equally ordinary objects.
In his writings on politics, Latour notes that victory belongs to those who can translate other people’s interests into his own language. He offers Louis Pasteur and his laboratory as an example. Having identified microbes as the cause of disease, Pasteur “translates” the problems of humanity (including those in power) into his own language and offers a solution. His laboratory model begins to spread, giving him an instrument of control, and, more importantly, giving him power over the language used to expressed various problems. That is the moment when traditional oppositions, such as internal vs. external, begin to lose their effectiveness and ultimately become irrelevant.
Pasteur’s terminological apparatus was translated into the language of “simple” people not merely to simplify it, but to ensure a broader distribution of vaccines and promote the laboratory model. Pasteur’s goal was not to adapt scientific truth and make it accessible to farmers; he was not motivated by the desire to subordinate himself to the ignorance of the popular consciousness.
When a poet writes about politics, he should avoid plunging into elitism, although a certain amount of it is inevitable. A poet’s goal is not to adapt any given truth and make it accessible for the popular consciousness. His goal is to distribute a vaccine that can prevent the disease of violence, but a vaccine has to be distributed everywhere if it’s going to be effective. A poet translates other people’s interests into his own language, and in this context, “translation” is really an act of construction. At the same time, the poet knows very well that no social group ever has pre-determined interests.
Hannah Arendt plucks the blooming blasts, converses with them, and recognizes herself there.
El Brocense rejects any form of violence.
Petrarch just goes on comparing the poet to a bee making honey from nectar gathered from different flowers. The literal flower has long since given way to the flower of a wound, its earthen fragrance driving the words deeper, into the domain of immutable human oneness.
Aleksey Porvin is a Russian poet born in 1982. English translations of his poems can be found in World Literature Today, Cyphers, Saint-Petersburg Review, Ryga Journal, SUSS, Words Without Borders, Fogged Clarity, The Straddler, The Dirty Goat, Action Yes, Barnwood International Poetry Mag, Otis Nebula, New Madrid, The Cafe Review, The New Formalist etc. Porvin is the author of three collections of poems in Russian – Darkness is White (Argo-Risk Press, Moscow, 2009), Poems (New Literature Observer Press, Moscow 2011), and The sun of the ship’s detailed rib (INAPRESS, Saint-Petersburg, 2013). His first book of poems translated into English, Live By Fire, was published by Cold Hub Press in 2011. Poems by Porvin have recently been short-listed by Andrey Bely Prize (2011, 2014). Aleksey Porvin is the winner of the Russian Debut Prize (2012).
Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler is a poet and translator, best known for his work on English renderings of novels by great contemporary Ukrainian author Serhiy Zhadan, published by Deep Vellum and Yale University Press and positively reviewed by journals including the Los Angeles Review of Books, the New Yorker, and the Times Literary Supplement. His work has appeared in numerous journals, including Little Star, Trafika Europe, and Two Lines. Wheeler is also an editor at Two Chairs, an online poetry magazine.