Poetry is good for a lot of things, but directly intervening in the material conditions of the world is not one of them.
I have long fretted over the prospect of “political poetry.” Is writing a poem consciously born of and occupied with our conditions enough? Certainly anything one can do from the armchair may be necessary but is never sufficient. There is theory, and there is praxis, and there is poetry, restlessly inhabiting some both/neither space in between.
Poetry’s tricky ontological position – not to mention its charmingly dismal readership numbers – is both its existential triumph and its near-fatal political failure. We need the pockets of new experience it opens, but the socioeconomic Rube Goldberg machine clatters on regardless of what we do or don’t read, do or don’t write. You have to lift a physical finger and you have to aim it outward if you’re to stop the dominos from falling.
So if political poetry is necessary but not sufficient, what must the political poet do?
A 1965 photo of Galway Kinnell following a civil rights protest circulates on Facebook, his left cheek punctured and his polo caked in a thick geography of blood. Christopher Soto aka Loma agitates ceaselessly for prison abolition; not too long ago, he spearheaded an initiative to get literary magazine subscriptions into the hands of POC who could not at the moment afford them. Audre Lorde participated in antiwar, civil rights, and feminist actions; she fought to establish a Black studies department at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
This, then, is what the political poet does.
Or perhaps he meets a friend who wishes to return to her hometown, a place she sees as underserved and ignored, its people deemed worthy of less by certain callous talking heads. Perhaps this friend sees in art a healing potential; perhaps she has identified a way the poet can be of use.
So the poet rises from the armchair, puts his body in the street – or on the ranch, in this case. Not because the poet wishes to play out a hero fantasy, become a living instance of the Onion article in which a six-day visit to rural Africa changes a local woman’s Facebook profile picture forever. Not because the poet is ready to report live on the ground from Appalachia, his East Coast friends gawking at his status updates as if at exotic beasts caged in a zoo.
But because politics, in the best of circumstances, is the collective labor of transforming that which is into that which should be.
Matthew Kosinski is a poet from New Jersey. He holds an MFA from The New School. His work deals with appropriated text, stock photography, religion and myth, the convergence of image and object, socioeconomic disenfranchisement, and manufactured desires. He is SOIL SERIES‘s editor and resident poet. Read Matt’s poetic contributions to the project here.