Poetry and Political Change

Against the Current, No. 157, March / April 2012

Dale Jacobson

Seeking to Make the World Anew
by Sam Friedman
Hamilton Books, Lanham, Maryland, 125 pages, $25 paperback.

THERE IS A tradition for engaged political poetry in America. A number of memorable writers come to mind, Walt Whitman, Kenneth Fearing, Langston Hughes, Carl Sandburg, John Beecher, Don Gordon, Thomas McGrath, Muriel Rukeyser, Meridel LeSueur, Olga Cabral, Adrienne Rich, Floyce Alexander, and others. There are also poets who write the occasional political poem.

Those for whom politics is central to their work have one quality in common: their poetry rises out of recognition of institutionalized social oppression, which makes them distinctive from other poets who broach politics when some singular event is a catalyst. Their political vision is integral to their “world” or “life” vision, and so larger than momentary outrage or antiwar protest. They see history as the process by which our true human identity is achieved (or perhaps made) and their poetry is an effort to reveal and help accomplish this identity.

Sam Friedman’s collection falls within this tradition, as the title of the book suggests. A sociologist with a longtime interest in rank and file labor activism, Friedman has also become a leading expert in the field of drug use epidemiology and prevention as a Senior Research Fellow and Director of the Social Theory Core in the Center for Drug Use and HIV Research at National Development and Research Institutes, Inc., New York City.

This book opens with a fairly substantial introduction, in which the poet himself talks in detail about his intellectual underpinnings that helped formulate his Marxist views. Such influences can be important, certainly to the writer if not the reader, but with this book we have a clear intent by the author to present it as instruction.

Among current academics such a purpose is generally considered a violation of esthetics and a didactic intrusion on the poems, but I’ve never figured out how art can avoid being instructive to its culture, and such criticisms seem to me to confuse the message of the poem with its success. Friedman is hardly the first poet to provide some amount of intellectual background or explanation for his poems.

The Importance of Context

These poems succeed independent of whether the reader agrees with the author’s sense of dialectics or his intellectual world view. One reason is that the poems, even when addressing intellectual questions, are grounded in concrete events and details or arise from specific occasions.

Second, the author remains loyal to events and the emotions they elicit in him. While his intellectual belief system obviously informs the poems, the poems succeed of their own accord.

Additionally, the poems gain historical context that so much purported political poetry lacks. This latter quality is important, as we still suffer from wholly inadequate or outright deceptive interpretations of history in literary discussions.

Here, for example, is a comment about the Russian Revolution in the The Times Literary Supplement by G.S. Smith, Professor Emeritus of Russian at the University of Oxford: “Russia was hijacked by a fanatical alien sect whose wanton nihilism masqueraded as cleansing atheism and liberating populism, and who venerated ends with no scruple about means.” (TLS, November 4, 2011: 19)

This reduction of history reminds me of some of the criminal caricatures of the American founding fathers by British cartoonists. We are to believe that the primary cause of the Russian Revolution was to eliminate religion and establish nihilism (though “cleansing atheism” is oddly phrased). We might believe that it had nothing to do with economic collapse and World War I under the tsar.

Sam Friedman offers another, more nuanced view in his poem “Musings of Lenin’s Ghost, 1999.”

They call me evil, an evil genius,
but they were not there,
did not nightmare the tsar’s prickly noose
crushing their brother’s breath,
did not see strikers beaten and shot

…and so the poem continues until we arrive at the poet’s notions of Lenin’s thoughts on our recent times, carrying history forward.

Obviously no revolution by force can avoid brutality (at least I know of none), but Friedman’s poem fills the historical void G.S. Smith ignores, even while critiquing Lenin’s “errors,” his failure to recognize the value of democracy (which might be itself at least potentially arguable, according to the historian Roy Medvedev, who claims Lenin before his death was looking for ways of introducing democracy).

So we see the poet’s insistence not only on historical context, but honesty about history, a theme he mentions elsewhere.

Ecology, Imperial Power, Hope

The poet’s pedagogic purpose is also advanced by the book’s organization, the topical grouping of the poems, each section with a brief author’s preface.

There are 13 such sections, beginning with “Work and Daily Life” and including such subtitles as “Ecology: The Whole World at Risk,” “Imperial Power in Action,” “If We Fail,” “Future Struggles — We Hope,” concluding with a reminder of the book’s title, “Notion: Making the World Anew.” On one level, the poems almost work as “evidences” concerning the topic around which they are collected.

Here are some lines from the poem “Exile,” which concerns he own feelings of estrangement from the predominant current apolitical poetry as well as the retreat of his once politicized generation:

My mind re-assures me:
It will not last…
the resentments of billions
will crescendo movements again.
My mind re-assures me,
but I cry still an exile,
a refugee rebel
in the land of my birth. (54)

This poem might well have concluded on the hopeful “crescendo movements again,” but the feeling that sparked the poem prevails, which for me indicates the poet’s inherent commitment to honesty about the current times, despite his intellectual reassurance. A greater depth results from this honesty. Certainly the reassurance is important so we can experience the contrast between potential and the present.

I also very much like the low-key “crescendo,” which answers the emotional despondency of exile, though faintly. While intellect is acknowledged as valuable, we find the emotion, the spirit of solidarity that stirs change, to be essential in the use of “crescendo.” Such spirit is repeated a number of places in the book, but this passage illustrates as well as any why these poems succeed.

Elsewhere the poet emphasizes his understanding of Marxist dialectics, one principle of which is “negation of negation,” but in this passage that principle asserts itself in an emotional way. The negative feeling desires its own negation, which can only occur by the positive (or “negating” if one prefers) struggle against oppression. Had the poet not felt compelled to remain true to the emotions that gave rise to the poem, but only its underlying intellectual argument, this emotional resonance would not exist.

Seeking to Make the World Anew is a book of poems that can help us create a civilized world.

March/April 2012, ATC 157