Tag Archives: Political Poetry

Politics and Poetry: Feminism

In the last year, I’ve been giving a series of lectures titled Politics and Poetry for The Socialist Party USA. This is an excerpt from the Slam Poetry section of that lecture.


Image of Sylvia Plath
Image from PoetryFoundation.Org

So, Sylvia Plath. She’s not my favorite, but one can’t talk about feminist poetry without talking about Sylvia Plath. She’s most well known for her work The Bell Jar, which is semi-autobiographical and was published right before her death. She had a tumultuous life, attempting suicide multiple times until the last time, when she stuck her head in an oven with the gas on in 1963. She was married to another poet, Ted Hughes, who cheated on her, often, and had two children. She is known for her intensely autobiographical works and the social restrictions facing women. This poem, Lady Lazarus is from her book Collected Poems and was written in 1960:

Lady Lazarus

I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it——

A sort of walking miracle, my skin
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
My right foot

A paperweight,
My face a featureless, fine
Jew linen.

Peel off the napkin
O my enemy.
Do I terrify?——

The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?
The sour breath
Will vanish in a day.

Soon, soon the flesh
The grave cave ate will be
At home on me

And I a smiling woman.
I am only thirty.
And like the cat I have nine times to die.

This is Number Three.
What a trash
To annihilate each decade.

What a million filaments.
The peanut-crunching crowd
Shoves in to see

Them unwrap me hand and foot——
The big strip tease.
Gentlemen, ladies

These are my hands
My knees.
I may be skin and bone,

Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman.
The first time it happened I was ten.
It was an accident.

The second time I meant
To last it out and not come back at all.
I rocked shut

As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.

Dying
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.

It’s easy enough to do it in a cell.
It’s easy enough to do it and stay put.
It’s the theatrical

Comeback in broad day
To the same place, the same face, the same brute
Amused shout:

‘A miracle!’
That knocks me out.
There is a charge

For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge
For the hearing of my heart——
It really goes.

And there is a charge, a very large charge
For a word or a touch
Or a bit of blood

Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.
So, so, Herr Doktor.
So, Herr Enemy.

I am your opus,
I am your valuable,
The pure gold baby

That melts to a shriek.
I turn and burn.
Do not think I underestimate your great concern.

Ash, ash—
You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there——

A cake of soap,
A wedding ring,
A gold filling.

Herr God, Herr Lucifer
Beware
Beware.

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.


Politics and Poetry: The Harlem Renaissance

In the last year, I’ve been giving a series of lectures titled Politics and Poetry for The Socialist Party USA. This is an excerpt from the Slam Poetry section of that lecture.


In the 1920s the neighborhood Harlem, located in New York City, became a hotbed of culture for the disenfranchised black minority in the United States. Harlem became the place where black immigrants from Africa, the Caribbean, and other blacks across the U.S. came together in the hopes of a better life, establishing an educated black middle class, and creating art in all of its forms, known as the Harlem Renaissance.

Great thinkers, writers, and poets like James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, W. E. B. Du Bois, Countee Cullen, James Weldon Johnson, Claude McKay, and Elizabeth Alexander, among others, emerged from this scene and left behind a lot of work that is heavily influential today. Today we’re going to focus on Langston Hughes, Jessie Redmon Fauset, and Countee Cullen.

Image of Langston Hughes
Image from The Huffington Post

Langston Hughes is hands down one of the best known American poets, not just one of the best known Harlem Renaissance poets. He was a social activist, novelist, playwright, columnist, and invited a new literary art form called jazz poetry. Hughes, born in 1902, lived through both the depression and became part of the peace movement in the 1940s to keep Americans at home and out of WWII. He was outspoken in his concept that as long as the U.S. had Jim Crow Laws and racial segregation, black Americans should not serve in the military and defend a country that did not offer them equal rights. As part of the left, during the time of McCarthyism, Hughes was accused of being a communist. He wasn’t tried or anything, but when asked why he never did join the American communist party, he stated “I never read the theoretical books of socialism or communism or the Democratic or Republican parties for that matter, so my interest in whatever may be considered political has always been non-theoretical, non-sectarian, and largely emotional and born out of my own need to find some way of thinking about this whole problem of myself.” Hughes work was highly influential during the civil rights movement and has remained influential to this day. Here are two of his poems I wish to share today, the first being “You and Your Whole Race” written in 1930:

You and your whole race.
Look down upon the town in which you live
And be ashamed.
Look down upon white folks
And upon yourselves
And be ashamed
That such supine poverty exists there,
That such stupid ignorance breeds children there
Behind such humble shelters of despair—
That you yourselves have not the sense to care
Nor the manhood to stand up and say
I dare you to come one step nearer, evil world,
With your hands of greed seeking to touch my throat, I dare you to come one step nearer me:
When you can say that
you will be free!

This next poem of his is titled “Harlem” and is from 1951:

Politics and Poetry: Ezra Pound

In the last year, I’ve been giving a series of lectures titled Politics and Poetry for The Socialist Party USA. This is an excerpt from the Slam Poetry section of that lecture.


So we’re going to do things a little backwards for this one and look at the poet’s works first before jumping into his biography. This poem penned in 1926 is one Ezra Pound’s most famous poems, in part because of how short it is:

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Pound was an American poet, born in 1885 and lived through both world wars and well into the cold war and the conflicts that prevailed during the time (and subsequently died in 1972). This next poem of his is titled “The Coming of War: Actaeon” written in 1917.

An image of Lethe,
and the fields
Full of faint light
but golden,
Gray cliffs,
and beneath them
A sea
Harsher than granite,
unstill, never ceasing;

High forms
with the movement of gods,
Perilous aspect;
And one said:
“This is Actæon.”
Actaeon of golden greaves!

Over fair meadows,
Over the cool face of that field,
Unstill, ever moving,
Host of an ancient people,
The silent cortège.

Ezra Pound is credited as being one of the creators of the Modernist poetry movement with his focus on imagery. He translated Chinese and Japanese poetry and in both his translated works and original works he pushed for clarity, precision, and economy of language. He founded not only several American literary magazines, but he is credited for discovering and shaping poets such as T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Robert Frost, and Ernest Hemingway.

Image of young Ezra Pound
Via Wikimedia.org

Then came Word War I.

Politics and Poetry: Early Modern English Poetry

I like to write poetry. I can’t say I’m the best at it, but I’ve been published a few times and I continue to study rhetoric and poetic form as well as continue to try to write and publish the work that I do. I’m also a passionate person when it comes to politics and social justice. My major in college was English, but my minor was political science.

So often when I write, I write politically-themed poetry. This struck one of my friends as odd. When I got to thinking about the link between politics and poetry, though, I have to say it’s really not all that odd for politics and poetry to be combined.

Politics and poetry have always been aligned. Poetry has always been a place for marginalized people to make their voices heard or to covertly challenge those in power. Today poetry continues to be an arena for social commentary and pushes for social change, and, above all else, a way for people to make their voices and opinions heard.

Queen Elizabeth I in her coronation robes.

Early Modern English Poets

Also known as the English Renaissance, this period lasted from the late 15th century into the cusp of the 18th century and was filled with political turmoil. Protestant and catholic monarchs kept being crowned which meant every time the power passed between faiths, the people of this time period were expected to convert. The idea behind a monarchy is that the political leader, the king or queen, is ordained by the Christian God to be in power. So when a protestant was in power, everyone from the nobles to the peasants were expected to convert and to believe, in their heart of hearts, that this new religion was the one true religion. Then when a Catholic took the throne, the people would again have to convert and know that in their heart of hearts, that this new religion was the one true religion. Some monarchs, like Elizabeth I, said, you know what? This isn’t fair. As long as you practice the faith you believe in, I don’t care if your religion matches mine. That worked for about five minutes, until Pope Regnans in Excelsis said that, because she was a protestant, she was not the legitimate Queen of England and anyone who assassinated her was doing God a service and would be forgiven. Now Elizabeth had to be wary of all Catholics, which did little to ease political tensions in the time period. Add in some international conflicts, like wars between England and Spain, and mix in a Virgin Queen and the fear of no apparent heir causing another War of the Roses (for you Game of Throne fans, the War of the Roses is the political conflict that inspired the fantasy series) and you get a lot of turmoil and a lot to criticize.

During this time of constant conversion, poets like John Donne issued a challenge through his poem Satire III to the logic behind forced conversion with such lines as:

Keep the truth which thou hast found; men do not stand
In so ill case, that God hath with his hand
Sign’d kings’ blank charters to kill whom they hate;
Nor are they vicars, but hangmen to fate.

Donne states that God has not given Kings the right to force conversion, nor execute the populous for their religious beliefs. In England during the Early Modern Period, religion and politics were intertwined so criticizing the way the crown handled religion was a political issue and one, as Donne alludes to in this poem, that can lead to execution.

Some Poetry to Inspire Voting

While I am an English major and I adore literature, I am also a political science minor, civically engaged, and a supporter of social justice.

Voting is important, especially in mid-term elections. For some reason, people forget that local government is the form of government that has the most immediate control over their lives. The presidential elections tend to draw the biggest crowds but it’s at the local level that a lot of federal policies and actions are carried out.

Local ballot measures, judges, state representatives – I don’t care which way you vote on these, just get out there and vote. If you feel that you’re ill informed to make a decision based off of a lack of information, you can either do a little bit of research using your smart phone before you enter the voting booth, or you can always skip voting for a portion of the ballot. But getting your voice out there on the issues you are aware of and the people you do support is vital to the democratic process.

Just to throw some numbers at you now, political decisions effect 100% of the population, yet less than 50% of the population during midterm elections gets out there to choose who is in office to make these political decisions that effect ALL of us.

With that disclaimer out of the way and my advocacy expressed, I can now share some political poetry to help inspire you to get out there and vote!

Maya Angelou
Excerpt from On the Pulse of Morning

A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
Marked the mastodon,
The dinosaur, who left dried tokens
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.

But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow,
I will give you no hiding place down here.

You, created only a little lower than
The angels, have crouched too long in
The bruising darkness
Have lain too long
Facedown in ignorance,
Your mouths spilling words
Armed for slaughter.

The Rock cries out to us today,
You may stand upon me,
But do not hide your face.