The Perils Of Political Poetry

David Wojahn considers them:

If you set out simply to write a poem of social criticism or invective, the results are almost invariably going to be mere agitprop. And that problem afflicts much of the work of even some of our greatest poets of invective—Neruda and Brecht come to mind. Finding a way to blend the personal and the social is a complex and tricky imaginative problem—you have to ask yourself what right you have to address an injustice you yourself have probably not experienced; you have to find a form that allows the personal and the political to commingle in a way that seems effortless and serendipitous; you can’t rely on the same old lefty pieties any more than you can rely on the equivalent pieties that make for a poetic period style. But one of the principal functions of poetry is to preserve and protect human dignity, and if you are sufficiently loyal to that function you find a way to navigate through all the pitfalls, both pitfalls of inadequate craft and of fuzzy political thinking.

How Wojahn describes writing one of his own political poems, “For the Honorable Wayne LaPierre, President, National Rifle Association,” which borrows from Dante and places the gun-rights activist in the seventh circle of Hell:

It’s interesting that Dante seems again and again to encounter his contemporaries in hell and purgatory—people he knew in Florence, often his political adversaries. It’s an incredibly clever way to get back at the people who he felt wronged by. A few years back, I came across a very smug and self-satisfied interview with LaPierre, given right after the Supreme Court had declared the DC handgun ban unconstitutional. It occurred to me that LaPierre was exactly the sort of reprobate Dante placed in the furthest circles of inferno. In one of the rings of Circle Seven he situates “the violent against their neighbors,” and that label seemed to me to aptly fit people like LaPierre and George Zimmerman. To try to re-describe and contemporize Dante’s punishments while still being faithful to his spirit was an exciting challenge, and I think having to focus on that helped me to avoid making the poem simply a diatribe against the NRA.