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Being Irish Makes You Hard-Hitting? Well, Yes.


PUBLISHED: September 22, 2007

Jennifer Howard, over at The Chronicle of Higher Education, has taken issue with my earlier blog post about Paul Muldoon. I wrote:

Maybe we can also hope that an Irish poet such as Muldoon will have an eye for harder-hitting, more topical poetry than we’re used to seeing in mainstream American magazines.

Howard responded by asking:

So being Irish makes you hard-hitting and topical? I thought we weren’t supposed to generalize based on nationality any more. It’s a good question, though: Is Muldoon’s appointment (or Simic’s, or Maxwell’s) really an example of a new internationalism in American literature or something less dramatic? Poets, speak.

I encourage our readers to respond there, but also leave your comment here. For your ease, here’s the response I posted:

There’s generalizing based on nationality, and then there’s drawing conclusions based on facts. The title sequence of sonnets in Muldoon’s latest book, Horse Latitudes, deals with the outbreak of the Iraq war. Can you name a prominent American poet who has dedicated similar space to the protest of the war? Almost any Irish poet is more politically engaged (at least on the page) than almost any American poet. Yes, Muldoon, but also Heaney, Ní Dhomhnaill, Longley, McGuckian, Mahon, and on and on. In this country—rife with poets with MFAs and prize-winning books and tenure-track jobs—where are the poems about the Iraq war? We have Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet. We have Operation Homecoming. Who else? Where is our Whitman writing poems at the bedside of the wounded? Maybe he or she is out there, and Muldoon will bring him or her to the pages of The New Yorker. Let’s hope so.

Jump into the fray, folks. Let’s talk about the place of the political in poetry.

10 Comments

Jason's picture
Of the set, “books I’ve reviewed at Bookslut,” I’d say–based only on memory–a little over half feature poems about Iraq. (Aside from _Horse Latitudes_, Tom Sleigh’s _Space Walk_ probably has the most.) If you extend “the war” to include 9/11 and all American military efforts since, then there are more poems. Part of the problem is how dramatically access to the front is restricted during the Global War on Terror (tm). Whitman could tend the wounded; Owen, Sassoon, Rosenberg were all at the front, etc. Those things feel less possible now.
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Ted Genoways's picture
Jason, you’re absolutely right about Tom Sleigh. Two of the poems from Space Walk that appeared in VQR can be found here and here. I’ve been pushing these poems on anyone who will read them, and everyone should buy Sleigh’s book.
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Sam J. Miller's picture
Sam J. Miller · 11 years ago
Um, Adrienne Rich anyone? CK Williams? I can think of lots of “prominent American poets who ha[ve] dedicated similar space to the protest of the war.” In America as elsewhere there’s the strong conviction that politics aren’t “proper” for poetry, that oppression is somehow a less literary subject than eroticism or domesticity or poetry itself, but especially within the feminist tradition we have so many amazing poets who can make political outrage as palpable as cold plums stolen from the icebox.
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Ted Genoways's picture
Ted Genoways · 11 years ago
Quite right, Sam, and thanks for chiming in. Anyone interested in this discussion should check out Rich’s excellent discussion of poetry and politics that appeared in VQR last year and keep reading her thoughts on the subject in What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics. I’ve also had trouble shaking the words of our poetry reader Karen Kevorkian in reviewing James Scully’s Line Break: Poetry as Social Practice (which has a foreword by Rich). Kevorkian writes: “It’s a matter of complicity: poets who fail to question embedded ideology do the state’s business, whether or not they acknowledge it.” As for C.K. Williams, let me just encourage everyone within driving distance to be at his reading on November 7 at 8 PM at the UVA Bookstore.
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Andrew Smith's picture
Andrew Smith · 11 years ago
Robert Pinsky came to my school (Willamette University) this last year as part of a politics in art forum, and I asked him how he managed to reconcile the political–knowing what should be done–with the poetic, or specifically the poetic urge to look deeper, to question. He responded saying that, well, Yeats was a bit of a fascist, Eliot and Pound had some questionable views, and so on. That poets should focus on their art, not politics. I disagree. I believe the act of “topical” poetry, whether political or not, should be to question what we are told. Political war poetry must address the political aspect without giving in wholeheartedly to either side.
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Ted Genoways's picture
Ted Genoways · 11 years ago
Thanks a million for this link, Don, and for dropping by the blog. I think it’s great that you’ve addressed this topic at Poetry, but I’d also be interested in hearing your own opinions—as a poet, an editor, and as a translator of Miguel Hernández, who lost his life over the poems he wrote against Franco. Why don’t we have poets like Lorca, Hernández, or Neruda? Or do we? And, if so, how can we bring them a wider audience?
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Don Share's picture
Thank you, Ted. Well, I think we must have poets like Lorca, Hernández, and Neruda, but that if so they are trees we’re failing to see for a forest. One explanation for this is that the tradition of political poetry (and cherishing such poetry) in the U.S. has apparently faltered since the death of Allen Ginsberg or so (if there’s any doubt about both its prior vitality and how dubious its reputation has become, see the fine documentary, The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg). Such traditions as we’ve had have never been as strong as those in such countries as Spain and Russia; and in terms of the editorial process, poems with a political purpose are often weeded out in the US on the grounds that they are propagandistic or bad, or both. Certainly, there’s sufficient proof of that. Then, too, as Andrew describes above, many simply choose to focus on “art.” Matisse said that he could accommodate “any regime, any religion, so long as each morning, at eight o’clock I can find my light, my model and my easel” (according to Georges Duthuit, Transition Forty Nine, no. 5, December 1949, 115) – but then again, he was Matisse. After you and I read together from Hernández’ work just after 9/11, I was criticized for saying that in a sense, we were all war poets now, like it or not. I didn’t mean that to sound fatuous, though I can see how it did. What I meant was that somehow or other we had become obliged to get not only the music of what happens but the discord of it into the language of our poems. Not all the time, perhaps. Not in an artless, heavy-handed way. (After all, lack of subtlety in our use of language has gotten our country into a few messes.) But surely there have been several wakeup calls. How should we answer them? By using the utmost skill and talent we have - and lots of heart. Our mags and blogs will bring the best of these works to a wider audience, to be sure – when they are written. Meanwhile, virtually none cross my desk, and though I understand that mine is where middlebrow elegies land to die, I wonder how many cross yours.
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Don Share's picture
Ran out of room there - and I ought to have ended with an exclamation mark so as not to sound dour - I’m genuinely wondering if at VQR you see better poems addressing political subjects than I do. Anyway, thanks again, Ted, for giving this topic a good forum.
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Jennifer Howard's picture
Jennifer Howard · 11 years ago
Hello Ted, I’m delighted to see this conversation taking off. It’s a rich subject. I was also glad to see your long comment about Muldoon on the Chronicle site. There’s a significant difference between the phrase “an Irish poet like Paul Muldoon” and a catalogue of the politically engaged work actually done by Paul Muldoon. All best, Jennifer
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