Polemic or Political?

For decades, no, for millennia, critics have debated the uses of poetry. Plato, remember him? He would have banned poets from his ideal republic. Trouble makers, dreamers, realists instead of idealists. All true. Then a while later along came the US Constitution and the idea of free speech. Wahoo! Poets could make as much trouble as they dared. They could write about whatever crossed their weird minds. This was a good idea even though it still broke hearts and rules in other, less open countries. No more hiding poems in the USA, no more need to memorize what could not be published. Remember Akhmatova having friends memorize her poems until it was again safe to print them them? My good fortune not to live under such pressure.

Poetry has long been a means to voice opposition to social injustice, pure meanness and discrimination. It certainly worked for W.B. Yeats in Ireland. When the Occupy Wall Street happened, I jumped right in to contribute poems, to add my voice to a movement that seemed likely to make a difference. I’m not sure that it worked, but it was better than sitting in frustrated silence. Now, again, I’ve answered the call for poems that connect craft and imagery to public issues, ideas and situations beyond  the lyric born from our private, individual lives.

It’s not that I no longer write the personal lyric, the narrative of experience, the observation of surroundings that amaze and instruct me. But at the invitation of the editor of The Colorado Independent, Susan Greene, I’m writing and publishing News Poetry. And it feels right to again respond to current events. The process involves two layers of editing, one being the poetry editor, Jackie St Joan, and the other being Susan, who makes the final decision to publish or not. She wants short, free verse, accessible poems. News Poetry is not just for English majors.

Writing about the news is a challenge. Not everyone approves. Poets rightly fear the danger of the polemic, the sermon, the demand that the reader share the writer’s belief, attitude or political persuasion. But the challenge to say something pertinent and still allow room for other attitudes is a healthy dare. I like it.


Denver Talks is a partnership between Lighthouse Writers Workshop, the NEA’s Big Read, and the City & County of Denver. The upcoming program features poet Claudia Rankine and Mayor Michael B. Hancock in conversation on November 15. Rankine’s book is Citizen: An American Lyric.

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