The release last week of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Allen Ginsberg film, Howl in New York and San Francisco (fat chance I'll see it soon, living hundreds of miles away from either) set us to thinking: Where is the revolutionary, politically and socially-conscious poetry of today? And where is its audience?
Sure, poetry slam is often outrageously dead-on when addressing social and political issues. And there's no doubt that it's created its own audience. But it seems the traditional, often academic schools of today's poetry have shied away from the kind of tough takes that Wendell Berry, Daniel Berrigan, W. S. Merwin and others took during the Vietnam War. You can go through several volumes of Poetry magazine before you'll find anything remotely political. And nothing current (please, please correct me here)approaches Carolyn Forche's excellent 1981 collection The Country Between Us that frankly discusses her personal experiences in El Salvador. Her poem "The Colonel" is a chilling account of the inhumanity of power and is a landmark of the genre. The Forche-edited, 1993 collection of 150 political poets, Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness shows the strength of such poetry; or, as Nelson Mandela said of the anthology, "it can bear witness to brutality—thereby cultivating a flower in a graveyard." More such flowers, please.
"Howl," first published in 1956, is a screaming lament against the loss of a generation, a "howl of defeat" as William Carlos Williams says in the book's introduction. It carries a huge measure of social and political condemnation and only a modicum of hope, most of it spiritual. The most politicized poem in the collection, and possibly the most damning, is "America," in which Ginsberg demands to be noticed by a country that then, as now, doesn't notice its invisible classes. It questions the reality of the world Ginsberg see portrayed on television, a world in which the Communists (now mistakenly known as "Socialists")want to "take our cars from our garages" and "make us all work sixteen hours a day." And it opens with a line that speaks to millions of Americans today, the unemployed, under-employed, under-paid and the otherwise impoverished working class:
America I have given you all and now I'm nothing
The movie, apparently, deals more with the obscenity trial against City Lights Books and its publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, than the entire Ginsberg saga. Reviews of the film -- here and here -- have been mixed, or decidedly negative. But our view is that any attention to such a landmark piece of revolutionary art, in every sense, is good.
Still the question remains. Where are the poets who address our current social and political issues? There's no shortage of subjects that cry out for the passionate, or even ironic, use of language in mounting protest. The general complaint that poetry has become too academic, too personal and too self-obsessed is only strengthened by their absence.
This absence is not complete. There are a few brilliant poets out there linking social and political issues with personal experience, if only in a matter-of-fact way. One of our favorite poets, Tony Hoagland, has a wonderful way of finding the commercial and political corruption of our lives in the mundane. His latest collection, Unincorporated Person in the Late Honda Dynasty sings of twisted commercialization, persistent racism and the effects of the global marketplace within the framework of everyday life. And he points out the difficulty art has dealing with such issues:
which in turn explains why the art
that hangs in the lobbies of banks
and in the boardrooms of corporate office buildings
is often made of black-and-white slashes
against a background of melted orange crayon
or glowing lavender rectangles floating in gray haze,
works in which no human figures appear,
in which the Haves
do not appear to be chatting and laughing
as they eat their sushi
carved from the lives of the Have-Nots.
--The Allegory of the Temp Agency
Poetry of this sort is, today, the exception (and any referrals to provide other exceptions or to flat-out prove me wrong are strongly encouraged, please...this is one time I'd love to be wrong). History is full of examples, from Homer to Wilfred Owen in which poetry influenced a generation (or generations') politics and social beliefs. A turn towards this kind of relevant poem might increase the audience for the now often over-looked art form. Ginsberg's poem contributed to the social rebellion of the 1960s and to an increasing interest in poetry itself. Who will howl today?