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Letter to the Editor 

Poetry czar doesn't like "political poetry"

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The critic Eleanor Wilner welcomes a "change in the reception of poetry concerned with current history," the "old pejorative" and "negatively loaded" term "political poetry" now replaced by the honorific "poetry of engagement."  The March 10 Tucson Weekly  featured the "poetry of resistance." At the risk of alienating my last two friends among Tucson's poetry community, I'd like to consider several of the poems of "resistance" featured in the Weekly.

No matter what you call it, "political poetry" presents inherent pitfalls: among them, predictability and sloganeering (ranging from formulaic ethnic spiritualism to self-dramatizing announcements of solidarity). Even the most accomplished poets stumble when waxing political. 

For example, Francisco  X. Alarcon writes,  

   from afar

   we can hear

   your heartbeats

   they are

   the drums

   of the earth.

Clichés like "heartbeats" as "drums/of the earth" and later in the poem, "your faces/are radiant/as the Sun," are common to much of the earnest poetry that presumes to bear witness and provoke social change. 

Odilia Galvan Rodriquez, in "Border Inquest Blues," asks

     which of my 

     careful word choices

     make a difference

     to scorched tongues

     that can no longer

     . . . .

     cry out for help

     in a desolate desert

The answer is none. Poetry does not provoke social change.  It may cheer up those who desire social justice.  It may "bear witness," but those who commit injustices aren't swayed by "careful word choices."  Sloganeering is given free rein in these last lines:

   in an illegal world

   full of legalized criminals

   who form tempests

   to tease out fear, and who

   year after year

   think up new ways to hate

   at the same time take

   even a person's last breath

   if it benefits their profits

Although some critics welcome a renewed popularity of  what they call "poetry of resistance" or  "poetry of engagement," let's not forget that "by any other name, most political poetry smells the same."

—Jefferson Carter

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