ART AND REVOLUTION by Michael S Begnal
(Poetry Ireland News, January/February 2004)
In my capacity as editor of The Burning Bush, I recently participated in a forum on the Irish 'little magazine' (part of the Western Writers Centre's Caitlin Maude Winter School). There were a variety of interesting topics discussed, but a question posed by Fred Johnston, the chair of the debate - Should literary magazines also have a political focus? - got me thinking once again about the relationship between politics and poetry. Neither poetry nor poetry criticism exists in a vacuum, and so cannot be separated from the nexus of the writer's individual experiences, culture, value systems, material circumstances, political beliefs, and so on. Though certain ultra-leftist critics in Ireland have on occasion sought to portray me as being somehow against political poetry, or of having an anti-political agenda in The Burning Bush, this is simply not the case. To attempt to define poetry as some free-floating, nebulous quantity ('art for art's sake'), unanchored from the concerns of the real world, would be ludicrous. And anyone who's ever read the magazine will know that there's always been a certain amount of overtly political stuff in there. A problem with political poetry, though, is that it seems to me to be very difficult to actually write a successful political poem, particularly when dealing with specific topical issues. Certainly it can be done, and has been done well, but there is the all-too-common danger of descending into mere sloganeering or propaganda.
Many poets in the small press scene do fall into this trap. Let me just say first of all, as I've said elsewhere, that I make absolutely no prescriptions (or proscriptions) in regard to subject matter. Write what you want! However, some of the political poets I've come across in Galway, through editing the magazine or whatever, tend to see the value of a poem chiefly in its content. Poetry for these people is often just a vehicle by which they put forward their opinions or ideology. Having something 'meaningful' to say is the key thing, which can then be chopped up into verse lines and, presto, you're a poet. I'm sure I must be over-simplifying matters, but at times this does appear to be the case.
But is poetry really 'about' its subject matter? Yes and no. Of course if you're going to set something down in a poem this implies that there's some particular thing or idea you want to express. Poetry, like any art, is communication. No one is disputing this point. But as it is poetry, it is also inherently about form. This needs to be understood. Otherwise it is merely being made to function like prose, the workaday prose of journalism, of textbooks, etc. There are ways of conveying meaning aside from blunt statement. So in this sense, poetry is also about language - it is an intensified form of language, or maybe its quintessence. By 'language' I don't necessarily mean poetic devices like rhyme or iambics, the variety of decorations you can pick and choose from to make your chopped-up prose lines seem more like poetry, but language as the means through which we perceive the world and ourselves. It is language which imparts to us our capacity for abstract thought. Our ability to process the information the brain takes in is concomitant with the development of grammar and syntax, as most linguists now agree.
Thus being concerned with language, in poetry, in no way implies a disregard for the material issues of the 'real world'. Language defines our very consciousness, and nothing could be more real than that. A poetry which might seem (to the more literal-minded reader) to move away from logical, concrete subject matter into an exploration of the nature of language itself (for example), could actually be said to be dealing on a deeper level of reality. Life is not the easy social narrative depicted in the representational art of yore. The only fairly certain end is death. In the meantime so much of the world, especially in today's media-driven society, is predicated on shifting and subjective images. A poetry which reflects this need not be taken as empty postmodernism (as a Marxist critic like Terry Eagleton might define it), but might instead be attempting to get to the heart of the processes that are in fact at work on us every minute of the day. Possibly it even subverts those processes, which can in itself be a political action.
Much of this, of course, boils down to personal taste. But it always amazes me when those who espouse a supposedly revolutionary political philosophy choose to reject revolutionary poetic forms in favour of traditional representational and social 'realism'. It's as if they've never heard of Joyce or Beckett, as if the innovations of 20th century modernism never happened. Instead they seem to want to turn back the clock. Conversely, Leon Trotsky, the only major historical Marxist figure who retains any shred of credibility, and who many on the Irish left still revere, was much more progressive. Trotsky embraced the avant-garde and collaborated with Surrealist leader André Breton on a 'Manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art' (1938). While today's Marxist critics fulminate about the need for poetry to hew to some political or social stance (theirs), Trotsky and Breton were more concerned with what politics could accomplish for humankind and the individual persons it comprises. What is the goal of politics if not liberation, from both political and economic oppression? Inasmuch as art depends on the freedom of the individual who creates it, it would seem to me that politics is in this way vital. Likewise, true poetry retains the potential to revolutionise (or at least evolutionise) human consciousness through language. So instead of tossing around lazy accusations of 'art for art's sake', I would suggest that anyone with a real interest in the nature of poetry and the role of art in society remember the battle cry of Trotsky's and Breton's 'Manifesto':
'The independence of art-
for the revolution;
for the complete liberation of art!'
Michael S Begnal is a poet and critic, and editor of The Burning Bush.