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Shake your chains: politics, poetry, and protest

This year, 21 March marks not just the beginning of the Political Studies Association’s 2016 Annual Conference in Brighton but also World Poetry Day. Formally ratified by UNESCO in 1999 but with antecedents that date back to the middle of the twentieth century, World Poetry Day’s aim is to promote the reading, writing, publishing and teaching of poetry throughout the world and, as the UNESCO session declaring the day says, to ‘give fresh recognition and impetus to national, regional and international poetry movements. But is there a link between poetry and politics that deserves fresh recognition?

One of Sir Bernard Crick’s last pieces of published scholarship was a chapter in the Oxford Handbook of British Politics entitled ‘Politics and the Novel’. The argument was simple and clear: novels provide a powerful mode of political expression due to the manner in which they allow writers to re-imagine a different world, to suggest alternative ways of living or highlight the risks of taking democracy for granted. But what arguments might a similar chapter on ‘Politics and Poetry’ take? How would a scholar even begin to unravel, let alone prove, the existence of relationships and influences that trespass across traditional disciplinary and professional boundaries? (Why do I persist in setting myself such challenging questions?)

The only thought that comes to my mind as a starting point for engaging with these questions is Mario Cuomo’s powerful slogan that all politicians “campaign in poetry, but govern in prose” and I can understand the contrast between the emotive and free-floating nature of speechmaking compared to the Procrustean reality of actually trying to govern and “the slow boring through hard wood” that Weber emphasized with almost poetical form. But I’m scratching the surface of something far deeper… and then I see the link that allows me to drill-down into not only the “poetry/prose” distinction that Cuomo highlights but also in relation to Crick’s work on the power of the novel. This drilling-down releases two veins of thought. The first can only be explained through the use of a section of David Orr’s wonderful essay “The Politics of Poetry” (2008) in which he writes,

Shortly before Ohio’s Democratic primary, Tom Buffenbarger, the head of the machinists’ union and a support of Hillary Clinton, took to the stage at a Clinton rally in Youngstown to lay the wood to Barack Obama. ‘Give me a break!’ snarled Buffenbarger, ‘I’ve got news for all the latte-drinking, Prius-driving, Birkenstock-wearing, trust fund babies crowding in to hear him speak! This guy won’t last a round against the Republican attack machine’. And then the union rep delivered his coup de grace: ‘He’s a poet, not a fighter!’

The implication was Cuomo-esque in the sense that Obama was being framed as someone who could play the game of winning votes but did not have the mettle for the worldly art of politics. Of course, he did win and he has demonstrated an impressive capacity for “playing the game” while maintaining a relatively clear moral position and vision. In many ways, the great skill of Obama rests not just with his clarity of thought but with his oratory skills: he connects with large sections of “the public” within and beyond the United States. But does this connection have anything to do with poetry?

I think it does…but not in the sense of “being a poet” in the Big “P” sense of the term (learned, professional, somewhat aloof, etc.) but in a small “p” sense that is actually far easier to comprehend in relation to the role and skills of professional politicians. “The Presidency is not merely an administrative office. That’s the least of it,” Franklin D Roosevelt once argued. “It is more than an engineering job, efficient or inefficient. It is pre-eminently a place of moral leadership. All our great presidents were leaders of thought at times when certain historic ideas in the life of the nation had to be clarified.” Roosevelt captures not only the sense of political leaders acting as lightning rods for public frustration, or figureheads to rally around in times of crisis; but someone who claims to offer direction, a set of imagined relationships, and certainty in an era of increasing risk. Roosevelt therefore points towards a deeper emotive bond between the politician and the public. And it was exactly this emotive, affecting relationship that Percy Bysshe Shelley pinpointed when he wrote,

Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not […] Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

But if poetry can act as a form of expression in the relationship between the governors and the governed, then it must also act as a tool for the masses and not just the elites. And it does, and has and continues to fulfill this role. Poetry as a mechanism of protest, as a call to arms, has a distinguished history that has in recent years evolved and exploded into a rich repertoire of online and offline forms that broaden into the realm of the spoken word, hip-hip, rap and protest music. Three reference points provide just the historical hop-skip-and jump that we need to provide a sense of that evolution. The first brings us back to Shelley, a radical in his poetry and his political and social views, whose The Masque of Anarchy (1819) – “Shake your chains to earth like dew / Which in sleep had fallen on you / Ye are many – they are few” provides just a taste of the thrust and power of his verse.

If Shelley provides the “hop” then Gil Scott-Heron provides the “skip” with his muscular and powerful approach to political poetry as both an interpretation of and call to protest. His satirical spoken word poetry “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” (1970) took its title from a popular slogan among the 1960s Black Power movements in the United States and its lyrics either mention or allude to several television series, advertising slogans and icons of entertainment and news coverage that serve as examples of what “the revolution will not” be or do.

You will not be able to stay home, brother
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag
And skip out for beer during commercials
Because the revolution will not be televised

Jumping forward to today the work of Scroobius Pip continues this critique of ephemera and commercialization in works such as “Thou Shalt Always Kill” (recorded with Dan Le Sac, 2007). The central message, as with Gil Scott-Heron’s work, is that young people should always think for themselves rather than getting caught-up in the shallow market-led trends of modern culture.

Thou shalt not judge a book by its cover.
Thou shalt not judge Lethal Weapon by Danny Glover.
Thou shalt not buy Coca-Cola products.
Thou shalt not buy Nestlé products…..
Thou shalt not put musicians and recording artists
on ridiculous pedestals no matter how great they are or were.

The style and pace may be far removed from traditional poetical forms and, as such, sits within the broader “spoken word” genre of political expression but the emotive power and the political argument remain clear. It is a protest. It is a call to arms. It is not, however, a call to violence. “Thou shalt think for yourselves. And thou shalt always… Thou shalt always kill!” may provide the final lines of the verse but “killing” in this sense is refers to vernacular street slang for “excellence.”

“To kill” in the modern vernacular sense provides us with a valuable lens on the link between poetry, politics and protest that this article has attempted to tentatively explore. To challenge convention; to think for yourself; to dig deep; to refuse to follow the crowd; to think the thoughts that society does not allow. The poetry itself, in the sense of the specific written prose, is also arguably less important than the socio-political context in which individuals are free to write, which is why poetry, and literature in all its genres, often has most impact in those authoritarian regimes that seek to repress not just movement but thought. Taking this further – and I must now warn the reader that I am writing well beyond my intellectual comfort zone – one might argue that the role of a political leader is not just about the use of language and oratory or being a small “p” poet as a form of statecraft but of actually daring to facilitate an environment in which poetry can flourish. Speaking at Amherst College in 1963, John F. Kennedy made an incredibly perceptive statement, “Society must set the artist free…to follow his vision wherever it takes him.” James Joyce uses his literary alter ego to make a similar point in A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man (1916) “Where the soul of a man is born there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.”

It is for exactly this reason that politicians have often felt threatened by poetry and why dominant political orthodoxies have often insisted that art should remain subservient to politics. Could there be any better reason for supporting World Poetry Day on 21 March 2016? Fly by those nets, shake your chains.

Image credit: “Percy Bysshe Shelley” by Alfred Clint, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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