Goya’s “The Third of May 1808”
North America’s stirred up. It’s awoken from a sleep induced first by comfort and extended by fear and uncertainty. The ’90s lulled us such that popular political literature declared history could have possibly ended. Meanwhile, the turmoil that would come to define the new millennium festered. Bubbles juiced the North American economy, and for many made a great peace of false wealth, while growing inequality was drowned out in the comfy malaise. The world continued warming, the oceans acidifying. The untenable governing structures of the Middle East stood pat, their internal conflicts rumbling like a stomach ache you try to live with. It couldn’t last.
And it didn’t. In the years after the September 11 attacks, the apparent calm of the previous decade gave way to the amorphous war on terror, climate change was permanently inserted into our collective discourse, and the wheels started to come off the global economy.
Fast forward to today: we live in a worried age. Occupy Wall Street, Idle No More, Toronto’s G20, Ferguson, The People’s Climate March—and don’t forget about the Tea Party, Wild Rose, the general anger and division that dominates every side of our public debate, or a tenaciously lingering gender and racial inequality. You can dismiss this all as a lot of hot air, and there is indeed a lot of that. But where there’s such politically-charged hot air, there’s at least a recognition that history still exists, and that we seem to be in the midst of one of its fiercest cauldrons.
Take 2014: Ebola, the Islamic State, Boko Haram, the continuing euro crisis, evermore convincing evidence of ecological instability, and, remember, nukes are still an existential threat. You have to turn to political literature like Yeats’s “Second Coming” to imagine the scope and depth of these combined threats. Which raises the question: how has political literature met this new age? How have we imagined the birth of our rough beasts?
But as soon as the question arises, another concern protests: does literature need to respond to worldly events? Can we expect artists to imagine our existential threats for us, or is that an undue responsibility to foist upon them?
Creeley’s View on Political Literature
In another era of unrest, Robert Creeley thought that political literature was an undue responsibility. Not that he wasn’t engaged in politics. “I’ve put my own commitments on the line, I think, by holding draft cards and by reading for the Resistance and I’ve had no intention not to state myself politically,” he told Arthur Ford, before adding, “but this hasn’t entered my poetry.” He explained, “It’s almost as if I’ve given so damn much to that idiot war [Vietnam], I’m damned if I’m going to give it my experience of words.”
Creeley adds an interesting dimension to the usual arguments against political literature. It’s not just that an interest in worldly or political affairs threatens to make a poem or a story boring or over-prescribed, but that literature is better suited as a refuge from those affairs, rather than as a means of engaging with them. It’s an attractive line of argument, and one I’m not willing to dismiss at all. In fact (to take the case of poetry), to claim that a poem has a responsibility to do anything in particular is to strip it of the glorious ability to be anything at all. It is to destroy the poems’ “mystery of purposes,” to borrow Jeffery Donaldson’s phrase.
Political Literature in The Puritan
Or, to borrow a lesson from Matthew Tierney, it is to chase an idea of what a poem “should do,” rather than what it “can do.”
At the same time, it must be acknowledged that one of the things literature can do, and with great power, is lend its imaginative ability to our worldly understanding. A poem can, for instance, offer us an imaginative space in which “to engage with painful history,” as Margaret Atwood wrote of Laurie D. Graham’s “Battleford Gravesite.” At the same time, we need to bear in mind that literature has done at least as much to promote humanity’s demons as it has our better angels.
This month, The Town Crier will be devoted to literature that engages our troubled world. We’ll look at a range of issues, from climate to surveillance, race and gender, and interpersonal politics.
The political scientist Roland Bleiker wrote, “Poetic representations can … open our eyes and minds to different ways of seeing what we have already taken for granted.” He goes on to call poetry “a domain of inquiry that can, if valourized properly, help us deal with some of today’s most pressing political challenges.”
Different Ways of Seeing will explore some of the ways in which political literature “help[s] us deal,” while keeping in mind that such help is not always positive, and that even when it is, its power is limited. Stay tuned.