Digital Poetics #26 Aesthetics and Time Constraints: Marie Buck
Marie Buck's essay is a reply, critique and contextualisation of Joe Luna's 'Writing for Freedom', published last week on the Hythe.
About two years ago, I got an email from someone I didn’t know at the time—James Davies—saying that he had seen my poetry in the Detroit Socialist, a publication of the Detroit branch of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and he was writing to see if I’d like to contribute to the poetry section of another DSA publication, The Build. I was kind of floored: being asked for socialist poems by a publication oriented toward actual activism suggested that the Left was more expansive than it previously had been and that poetry was much more thoughtful about politics than it previously had been. Poetry and activist worlds had nearly always felt quite separate, except when I was looking at archives (or, to be honest, visiting the Bay area). As dark as our moment is: the Left is stronger than it ever has been, within my lifetime at least, and the fact of a new and growing left poetry community is one small indicator of that. (To be clear: by the “Left,” I mean anti-capitalist organization.) Despite that the odds are against us, I think we can win, and my current approach to poetry is mostly inflected with intense feelings of camaraderie and political hope.
I also tend to roll my eyes at work that sounds like straightforward agit-prop—no need for obfuscation and line breaks and inconvenient distribution methods, in that case—so I appreciate Joe Luna’s pinning down the aesthetic tensions of the current moment. In “Writing for Freedom,” Luna identifies the trend toward an explicitly political poetry—one that positions poetry as always secondary to on-the-ground activism—and argues instead that positioning poetry itself as a type of freedom, where poetry “[mistakes] writing for freedom,” as he puts it, is the way forward.
Luna summarises Commune Editions’ position as arguing that poetry must “take a backseat” to political activity; he cites Commune’s own description of what poetry can do:
We are curious about, but not overconfident regarding, the capacities of art. Poems are no replacement for concrete forms of political action. But poetry can be a companion to these activities, as the “Riot Dog” of Athens was a companion in streets. A dog, too, might start barking when the cops are about to kick down your door. Perhaps that’s it, for now, what we’re doing, what is to be done, with poetry. Some barking. Some letting you know that the cops are at the door. They’ve been there for a while.
I’ve always found Commune’s intervention to be a welcome one. Luna discusses Language poetry briefly, but I think he does not focus quite enough on two key contexts here: 1) the experimental tradition of which Commune is a part has generally inherited Language poetry’s claim that forms are inherently political and 2) the repression of actual social movements of the 60s and 70s has meant that academia became a key site for producing Left discourse. Because Left discourse was mediated by professors attempting to get lefty politics into their classrooms, usually via close-readings of texts in English programs, gender and women’s studies programs, and other humanities programs, conversations about politics warped in the direction of close-reading and a hyper-focus on language over action and solidarity. Think, for instance, of the way that in the less-useful iterations of call-out culture on Twitter, people tend to pick apart the language choices of individuals, rather than take on the more difficult and collective task of organizing others into social movements that can effect structural change. This always feels to me like a habit picked up from humanities courses, not from being in a room with other organizers working on a project. That is: because grassroots left organizing was so sparse in recent decades, left discourse has been overly determined by academic discourse. If you’re teaching a class, you can slip some left concerns into your English or gender and women’s studies syllabus via readings of canonical texts pretty easily—more easily than you can orient your class to grassroots organizing. And so left conversations that take place in the academy are usually overly concerned with discursive questions because those conversations frequently occur in the humanities, where left ideas have become part of a dominant reading style and, simultaneously, have often detached completely from grassroots activism. For generations of students, left politics comes to seem like a matter of interpretation and distinguishing one’s own ideas rather than a matter of organization and solidarity. And, in addition to catalyzing a culture of enervating micro-debates on Twitter, this over-alignment of the Left with close-reading methodologies has produced the notion that since we can read the political valences of any text, then everything is political, all the time.
The history of Language poetry seems to me parallel: as actual left activism was repressed, left ideas dispersed into culture in somewhat bizarre ways, including the claim that conventional syntax correlates to conventional and capitalist economic processes.
Pre-Occupy and pre-Commune, then, it felt to me like there was little porousness between the activist-world—which involved lots of meetings, die-ins in the tiny anti-war movement in the early aughts, union activism, early Boycott, Divest, Sanction work, anti-foreclosure work, and the like (some of which I participated in, much of which I just heard about)—and the experimental poetry-world, including the parts of the experimental poetry world that were invested in Marxist thinking and in deconstruction. It also felt like there was a general sort of agreement in the experimental poetry world that writing was inherently political, and the point was to close-read a text’s politics, which were likely formally obfuscated.
I’ve written this before, but: there’s a deceptive slip in the word political. Everything is politically inflected, but not everything builds political power. If one were to ask whether poetry is political, most poets and academics would probably say yes, of course. But if one were to ask how we go about getting a cop who’s killed someone indicted, or how to get the Green New Deal passed, or how to make the subways free: almost no one would say that the political strategy is to write a poem. Poetry might be “political” in some sense, but it doesn’t generally build political power. I think of the Commune editors as comrades—but beyond that, I’m grateful for their role in shifting this discourse. Poetry conversations are much better for it, and hopefully people who find themselves interested in poetry via some humanities course or local reading now find themselves involved in protests, mutual aid, and other organizing rather than in a myopic academic conversation. Commune shifted the conversation about politics in poetry from one about political inflections in writing to one about actual political power.
To break it down, since I’m using the word “political” throughout: we have 1) poetry that is not political on the surface, but the politics of which we might close-read, a common practice in humanities programs and one which also applies to a lot of the experimental tradition in the 90s and 2000s prior to Commune’s intervention; 2) poetry that wears its politics on the surface, like much of the work from Commune and like work in many of the new publications referenced in this article about Prolit; and then 3) non-literary activity and organizing that builds political power, like protesting, striking, canvassing, and the like.
Despite my appreciation of Commune, on some counts I also very much agree with Luna, who argues that positioning poetry as secondary, as the riot dog helping the revolution, forces poetry into a role where it can’t do much: “To claim to ensure that poetry does not over-step its role as the guard dog of the revolution is to claim that capitalist social relations must be overcome before literature can represent the freedom that such an overcoming would entail. But in the kind of capitalist social relations that include and surround us, all sorts of things are already mistaken for the freedom that they only promise, because such things really do confer a vestige of the freedom they pretend to—things like sex, and dancing, and Mahler, and pop, and loving camaraderie….” Basically: while there’s never an “outside” to capitalism, and our pleasures are all circumscribed by capitalism, and so forth, there is, of course, human thought and emotion that is utopian, that is pleasure, that is misery, and that can’t adequately be summed up by political manifesto. Poetry shouldn’t just be the key tenets of anti-capitalism with line breaks, he points out. He goes on: “One of these negative powers is the capacity to return us, from the isolation of contemplative reading, to the feeling of being incontrovertibly social, through the experience of knowledge and pleasure that a poem makes concrete in the time of its reading. It is a negative power because it cancels a certain kind of relation to the world—that of quantifiable material or economic efficacy—in the truthful acknowledgement of the impotency of culture truly to represent the world we don’t yet have, instead of the world of compulsory exploitation (and unavoidable misrecognition) that we do.” I agree with Luna here too: there is something inherently utopian about writing—about communication across time and space and about the endless possibilities of what one can put on a page. The point of all art, even, might be its potential to be in excess of the world as we know it. What I want from writing most frequently is to be surprised, to not have had that thought before. And sometimes--when I see political poems that don’t seem to work as poems, I think that the conversation about poetry and politics is simply a confusion of genre: put the agit-prop on a flier rather than adding line breaks and putting it in a poem.
And yet: I don’t share Luna’s dislike of the explicitly political because I don’t think this is much of an either/or. Reading Luna’s essay, I recalled sitting in the Reuther archive at Wayne State University, as a PhD student, circa 2010 or so, and reading poems published in the newspaper of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, the precursor to the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. (The League was a Marxist organization of Black auto workers that staged wildcat strikes and organized across Detroit in the late 60s and early 70s.) I was fascinated by the poems, but also had a distinct sense that attempting to write such explicitly political work myself would result in some godawful, didactic poetry. I was teaching a lot of Black Arts Movement work that semester too, and my intense love of it—and of Meridel Le Seuer and of Langston Hughes’s communist poetry, too—all felt like a puzzle, since in many other instances I had an aversion to explicitly political writing and found it sort of one-note and moralizing. And I eventually concluded that social movements produce interesting explicitly political poetry, and that explicitly political poetry outside of social movements tends to be bad. This is, on the one hand, a huge oversimplification and doesn’t really work as a rule of thumb. On the other hand, though, I still kind of think it’s right. When one is writing explicitly political poetry outside of the context of a meaningful social movement, there’s a tendency for the poetry to educate: to tell us how things are, to convince us, to fall into familiar forms. When one writes from within a social movement, though—and maybe particularly from a moment of hope—there’s a greater likelihood that the poem can talk explicitly about politics, perhaps addressing the reader through a sense of solidarity, and simultaneously access the “negative powers” that Luna describes—those powers that give up on the possibility of poems being useful in order to register the world we want in the acknowledgement that poems can’t, in fact, represent that world. That is: if our daily lives are organized around actions that build political power, the work we make is going to reference that politics even when it refuses didacticism. This rubric gets us out of the didacticism that Luna objects to but lets us keep explicit references to politics, insofar as those politics are part of daily life. Every poem coming out of a social movement isn’t necessarily good, but perhaps when political hope inflects one’s experiences of daily life, there is more room there for poetry to get at that negative power that Luna invokes while also referencing the demo, the canvassing, and the life-circumstances that spur the activism. In this case, poetry isn’t reduced to the sidekick role of the barking riot dog; it’s off in its own realm, not obligated to any didacticism—but because we’re in a social movement, the world of the poem is one in which political activity is ambiently present.
The summer before this past one, the poet and musician David Berman died, and I spent a lot of time rereading his poem “Self-Portrait at 28,” which is largely about memory and the self, and time slipping away. And maybe death, really, or at least I read it that way last summer. It’s from Actual Air, a book published in 1999 and one of the first poetry books I ever loved. When Berman died, friends DM’d me about how much we’d all loved that book together, in the early aughts, when we were in our very early twenties (and before I had encountered radical politics at all). I have a lot of feelings about it. I thought Berman’s work might not hold up for me, going back to it, but actually it really did—I think I love it even more this time around. The work isn’t about politics. Maybe if we wanted to read it as being about the political malaise of the 90s, we could, but that would be a stretch. It’s about sadness, in a pretty apolitical way, I guess, more than anything. And there is a dog here too. The poem ends:
…and it would be easier to explain this
if I had a picture to show you,
but I was with our young dog
and he was running through the tall grass
like running through the tall grass
is all of life together,
until a bird calls or he finds a beer can
and that thing fills all the space in his head.
his mind can only hold one thought at a time
and when he finally hears me call his name
he looks up and cocks his head.
For a single moment
my voice is everything:
Self-portrait at 28.
Berman’s dog is here in the service of the lyric moment, of creating an effect of simultaneously trapping something in amber and sharing it with another person in a way that lyric poetry is particularly suited to, via this perspective shift, via the dog’s head being filled up with the speaker’s voice.
This is going to be an aggressively mixed metaphor, but here we go: in the future, in another location, Commune’s protest dog warns us about the cops at the door. Here David Berman’s dog lets its head be filled with a bird call or a beer can or our speaker’s voice and lets us see something that way. I like both of these dogs as metaphors for poetry, and I also think: maybe Berman’s speaker went to the protest earlier, or the canvassing, or the riot. Or maybe he didn’t. Maybe our dog-that-is-really-poetry, in letting itself be written of, in acting as the relay point between Berman and us, captures both the social and the poetic negativity that Luna writes of.
I personally have felt very inclined to write explicitly political work lately. I told myself that I wanted to write explicitly political poems, but to have them be good, which I suppose does suggest that I think good, explicitly political work is pretty rare (though also my favorite). Writing explicitly political work that also does the thing Luna describes (and I think he and I probably see it in different places a lot of the time) seems to be pretty much the hardest thing you can do, and so I wanted to take the challenge and try it.
Some of my favorite explicitly political poetry itself thematises the question of politics and poetics. I admire Langston Hughes’s “Johannesburg Mines,” which, in its entirety reads:
In the Johannesburg mines
There are 240,000
Native Africans working.
What kind of poem
Make out of that?
Working in the
I also admire, say, what Etheridge Knight does in his breakup poem “Feeling Fucked Up”:
fuck the sea and trees and the sky and birds
and alligators and all the animals that roam the earth
fuck marx and mao fuck fidel and nkrumah and
democracy and communism fuck smack and pot
and red ripe tomatoes fuck joseph fuck mary fuck
god jesus and all the disciples fuck fanon nixon
and malcolm fuck the revolution fuck freedom fuck
the whole muthafucking thing
all i want now is my woman back
so my soul can sing.
Hughes’s poem seems to suggest Commune’s barking dog image here, in that it questions what poetry can do but also insists on being a poem. Knight does something different, though. He insists that there needs to be space outside of revolutionary politics for heartbreak. But he does this by positioning Marx, Mao, Fidel, and Nkrumah as the backdrop—and alongside things that might be the subject of other lyric poems: red ripe tomatoes, the sky, birds. That is to say: yes, we should write about labor and exploitation instead of the sky, but also, if politics is part of your life, it will always be there in the catalogue of things advancing into view and then receding and then advancing again in the work. We’re in the moment of a mass political change now, hopefully, despite how bleak things look, forging a much larger left political collective. Political activity figures into the daily lives of millions of people. And so politics isn’t a specialised academic topic; it’s represented even in a poetics of the quotidian.
One wild thing about politics, anti-capitalism, etc., is that, while there might not be an “outside,” per se, there kind of is: human interactions, death, love, the brain—there are plenty of mysteries that are not beyond the political question, but intertwined and also bobbing through, sometimes internal, sometimes external. I’m also thinking of Mark Fisher’s unfinished writing on acid communism here—aesthetic forms as not simply expressive—and also, I think, not simply didactic, but instead as “[anticipating] and actually [producing] new possibilities” because of the living conditions achieved by social movements in conjunction with post-war economics (Fisher 761). That is to say, along with Luna: the aesthetic doesn’t need to be utilitarian in relation to current politics; it can be something joyful produced out of them that also dreams of something else—which is pretty much Fisher’s account of 60s psychedelia.
I’m excited about a lot of explicitly political poetry that’s currently being written: work published by Commune Editions, and in a different register work at Paint Bucket Page. I’m excited about David Berman all over again. I feel inclined toward work that holds onto the negativity and non-didacticism that Luna values while also inflecting political activity, in a sort of quotidian way that only recently has become possible. Not a riot dog necessarily, but the dog whose small brain is filled with someone’s voice—the voice of someone who maybe is on the same side as me. I am, to be honest, excited for whatever gets produced out of this moment of a growing Left and feel agnostic about a lot of things, since the Left’s tendency to formulas seems to have come productively undone in recent years.
My feeling, then, is that there’s no real aesthetic disagreement here. I’m just grateful that fewer people seem to be performing tortuous close-readings as supposed political activity. Poetry’s definitely secondary to organizing, but the question, I think, is one of time constraints rather than one of aesthetics. It’s hard to find time to do both. But you can join the Democratic Socialists of America (if you’re in the US) or your local anarchist group if that’s your proclivity. You can go to the canvassing or the protest or the training first. When you get too cold, go home, pet the cat, let your voice fill its head. Then write about whatever you want.
Berman, David. “Self-Portrait at 28.” Actual Air. New York: Open City Books, 1999, 54-61.
Fisher, Mark. “Acid Communism (unfinished introduction),” K-Punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2004-2016), edited by Darren Ambrose. London: Repeater Books, 2018, 753-770.
Hughes, Langston. “Johannesburg Mines.” Good Morning Revolution: Uncollected Writings of Social Protest by Langston Hughes, edited by Faith Berry. New York: Citadel Press, 1973, 13.
Marie Buck is the author of Portrait of Doom (Krupskaya 2015) and Goodnight, Marie, May God Have Mercy on Your Soul (Roof 2017). Their new book, Unsolved Mysteries, is just out from Roof. They are the managing and web literary editor at Social Text and live in Brooklyn.
This publication is in Copyright. Marie Buck, 2020.
The moral right of the author has been asserted. However, the Hythe is an open-access journal and we welcome the use of all materials on it for educational and creative workshop purposes.