Can poetry have a socio-political impact?

Image of Occupy Poetry logo.

While Auden famously wrote that “poetry makes nothing happen,” he offers a clarification: “it survives / A way of happening, a mouth.” It is one of the most basic questions in our field, and one that I often hear from students: does poetry matter, and, if so, how? Certainly poetry’s ability to “matter” does not rest on socio-political impact alone. Nevertheless, the question of poetry’s significance alludes to a long debate: is poetry always about poetry — l'art pour l'art — or does poetry serve a societal function. Put in Auden’s terms, what happens when we read or write poetry? — Katie L. Price 

Respondents: Brian Ang, Charles Bernstein, Michael HelsemRachel Zolf

A response by Brian Ang

Poetry can have a sociopolitical impact through how it constitutes communities toward forms of struggle adequate to acting on historical conditions. Within historical conditions, the totality of poetry’s social networks breaks down into overlapping communities defined by common aesthetic and political values, an expression of struggles within and between communities over those values. Within and between these communities, individuals struggle over values through the production and circulation of their poetries and other writings related to poetry, which manifest the values they want to advance. Poetry’s ordering of values can constitute communities with senses of their historical conditions, including desirable sociopolitical futures and forms of struggle adequate to those desires.

In a forthcoming essay, “Post-Crisis Poetics,” I connect readings of poetries that I’ve published in my magazine ARMED CELL. I started my magazine in August 2011 to publish poetry and poetics receptive to values emerging from the global waves of struggles since the 2008 economic crisis. The magazine’s title was drawn from a desire for militant intransigence signified by that form of struggle, a value of the California anti-austerity university struggles that began in 2009, the first significant resistance to the crisis in the United States. The university struggles are the referent for the magazine’s first poem, David Lau’s “Communism Today”: its first section ends “Occupy everything, including Humanities,” an extension of the university struggles’ slogan that influenced the Occupy movement that began in September 2011 from a politicization of space and time toward a politicization of knowledge, an emblem for the magazine’s desire for an historicized critical poetics. My editing has aspired to assemble complexes for thinking about each issue’s moment’s unfolding multifarious dimensions suggestive for further critical writing.

My essay elaborates what I find suggestive in these exemplary poetries for further critical writing in the post-crisis period in progress, including David Lau’s representation of the university struggles’ emergence in an historicized cultural matrix of meaning, Josef Kaplan’s transgression of moralism’s repressive representation of Palestinian violence, my assembly of a dynamic totality of new complexes for thinking from a receptivity to the infinity of language, Steven Zultanski’s making legible of the police’s subtle systemic repression in daily life and Maya Weeks’s representation of hegemonic ideology’s continuous deintensification so that they can be continuously challenged and overcome, Wendy Trevino and Dereck Clemons’s representation of the Occupy movement’s horizons for future acts to open them further, Jasper Bernes’s possible future making post-crisis limits and prospects more legible for struggles to navigate them, and Joshua Clover’s inquiry into capital’s post-crisis dynamics for where to intervene.

To multiply the discussion, my essay closes with an invitation for further perspectives about what poetry and poetics contribute or could contribute to critically thinking about the post-crisis period in progress for a series that I’m editing to be published over the course of a month. The project of post-crisis poetics is the constituting of a community for searching out historical conditions, sociopolitical desires, and adequate forms of struggle in the period’s unfolding transformations to come.

A response by Charles Bernstein

Even if it could, it might be better to think it didn't. 

A response by Michael Helsem

Poets are haunted by two ideas, neither of which can help them. One is that there once was a time when people listened—either because they had nothing better to do (lacking television), or because the poets in those days were so terrifically great nobody could help but be ensnared by their glory. Clinging to this idea in a time when poetry has become both denatured & marginalized (I almost want to say “disappeared”) will make you pointlessly bitter. There are much graver evils to be bitter about than this.

The other idea is that poets, through slogans, manifestos & fight-songs, can inspire the masses to act in sensible ways. Or, if not sensible, at least violent. People who cherish this idea tend to ignore the obvious historical fact that this role can just as well be taken by bad poetry, & usually is. In our time it’s music, of course. I can point to no more successful example than the adoption of “Seven Nation Army” by soccer fans.

I won’t deny that the history of poetry contains moments where a poem named something vital. Still, that’s not what it’s about. The real socio-political impact of a poem is on the human being who writes it. It should leave him or her a little less dishonest than before. After that, it’s not up to poetry. Politics is a separate game for a reason. But you knew that.


A response by Rachel Zolf


It’s a quick question. Maybe you want a quick answer? 

Or maybe you don’t. Maybe you want 500 words. How many do I have left?

When I think about whether or not it’s possible for poetry to have a socio-political impact, I think of the fact that the only thing one can forgive is the unforgiveable, or that when someone calls themself an activist maybe they’re not an activist at all.

I’m kind of allergic to this kind of question, wonder why it’s asked of certain writers and not others.

Anyway, I’ll shut up and try to say something, um, useful here. I guess for me art’s potentiality could reveal itself in deployments of affect. Or not deployments, too intentional and militarized. I’m interested in events (yes, in the Deleuzian sense) that potentially generate affects, whether they be disgust, anger, irritation, shame, confusion, or whatever happens. Affects not necessarily just stuck to or in or through the bodies in the room; perhaps also stuck in the room itself for one charged moment.

So what happens when M. NourbeSe Philip gathers people together for a hauntological group reading/ritual from/to/through Zong!? What happens after NourbeSe takes off her shoes and pours a libation, then her mouth opens and her body moves — and the rest of us have a number of choices to make or unmake? 

And when Laura Elrick shuffles down Fifth Avenue in a seemingly unraced, ungendered (defaced) black hood, orange jumpsuit and shackles, isn’t it interesting that people look away from her towards the Naked Cowboy? Looking away — remember how Audre Lorde critiques that affective stance in “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power”? Not to flaunt my lesbian nostalgia, but that essay is a still-relevant blast from now-time, even if her anti-porn stuff is (lovingly) dated. 

And for me, yes, I’ve been pushing my writing practice into uncomfortable, um, territories in an attempt to stimulate relations to affect and potentiality in the always colonized spaces I circulate in. I won’t say I’m sick of the poetry scene, particularly any poetry scene that deems itself political, but oops I just wrote that. So I made a movie to try to see what might pop (I wrote poop) up in that scopophilic dreamspace; and co-organized polyvocal community actions in charged public spaces, to see what we could do outside together; and co-created a sound performance in which I felt my skin flaying from the inside out as I tried to touch my own disavowed knowledges; and I interrupted poetry readings to start discussions on how colonial capitalism is the foundational and ongoing genocidal poison coursing through Turtle Island, even in those places where the “Indigns” may not be so visible, but other thanatopolitical bodies, yes, the black bodies mattering, are.

So I see I veered off toward sincerity. Fuck it, I do care about sociality and political action. And I don’t know if what I write matters at all in a material sense. It’s just what I excessively do. 502 words.