Where the Political Poets Are

NPR wants to know where all the poets have gone. Or at least that’s the clickbait-y headline on a recent think-piece in which Juan Vidal laments that poets aren’t political these days.

Mr. Vidal suggests that “literary provocation in America … is at a low” now that the Beat generation has died off. He name-checks a bunch of canonical male poets of the past and laments that they are no longer with us. He praises rappers and slam poets and Lupe Fiasco. He closes his overwrought commentary with a question: “Did they [poets] stop speaking, or have we stopped listening?”

I can’t tell if that query is intended as a mere rhetorical flourish or if it’s supposed to be a self-deprecating joke. Because it’s entirely clear that poets have gone nowhere. We’re still here, still writing, still engaging with the world, still challenging injustice. What’s not clear is whether Mr. Vidal has read any poetry published in the past few years.

It’s entirely predictable for the poetry community to react defensively when someone suggests there’s no such thing as a poetry community anymore, and the poets I follow on Twitter and Facebook bristled for obvious reasons when Mr. Vidal’s piece first appeared. So I’ll try to keep my own bristling to a minimum here, providing instead a sincere answer to the question of whether American poets in 2014 are taking on the important issues:

Yes. We are.

It’s not just slam poets and rappers, either, though to be sure the spoken-word crowd offers plenty of compelling and important social commentary (check out the Button Poetry Facebook page for examples).

If Mr. Vidal is truly interested in poets engaging on the page, here’s a list of places where he could turn:

  • Jamaal May brilliantly engages with Detroit and the plight of the American urban environment in his book Hum.
  • Timothy Donnelly’s Cloud Corporation is a subversive and intellectual examination of the effects of capitalism and corporate power on meaning.
  • Brian Turner served in the U.S. Army in Iraq and Bosnia-Herzegovina, then came home and wrote eloquently about his experiences in two books of poetry, Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise.
  • The poetry journal Rattle has an ongoing call for poems that respond immediately to the news of the past week.
  • Bob Hicok’s Words for Empty and Words for Full is, in large part, a response to the shootings at Virginia Tech, the university where he teaches.
  • Nikki Finney’s Head Off and Split (which only won the National Book Award) is intensely immersed in contemporary issues of race and politics.
  • In 2013, Nightboat Books published an anthology of “Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics,” giving voice to a community often overlooked by the canon and the academy.
  • Patricia Lockwood’s Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals is an argumentative and intelligent response to the 21st-century American power structure.

And this is but a starting place, the first names and books and poets that came to my mind, poems from my own shelf, my own recent reading list. Every single person who reads this blog post can surely provide their own list of political, engaged, reactionary, challenging poets.

So much of the best poetry being written today is doing exactly what Mr. Vidal wants it to: taking on the tough issues of the day, speaking truth to power, grappling with the limits of language to express what matters most. In his closing paragraph, Mr. Vidal offers this view of how poetry once functioned:

“They once fed us, our poets; emptying themselves in the process. Generously, courageously, they brought the darkness to light. They said what we felt, and didn’t mind taking the heat for it — whatever that meant.”

It seems unlikely that Mr. Vidal will ever read what I’ve written here, and unlikelier still that he’ll read my examples and rethink his stance. But if he somehow does wind up here and is reading this, I challenge him to read just one poem – Patricia Lockwood’s “Rape Joke,” which first appeared in The Awl and was probably one of the most-read poems of 2013. This poem checks every box on Mr. Vidal’s wish list. Written well before his commentary, it offers the best rebuttal I can think of.

Amorak Huey, a former newspaper editor and reporter, teaches writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. His chapbook, The Insomniac Circus, is forthcoming from Hyacinth Girl Press. His poems appear in the anthologies The Best American Poetry 2012, The Poetry of Sex, and Poetry in Michigan/Michigan in Poetry, as well as journals such as Rattle, The Collagist, The Southern Review, Poet Lore, Menacing Hedge, and others.