Is Political or Agenda Driven Poetry a Good Idea?

Lately, there has been a lot of encouragement for poets to write on behalf of political issues. There have been demands that our poet laureates pick up their pens in support of political issues. Given, the minimal reimbursement to poet laureates, I’m not sure that we should demand anything of them.  Nonetheless, is poetry with an agenda a good idea?

Having spent many years as a lawyer fighting political issues at the state and federal level, I am no stranger to conflict and disagreement.  Generally, I stay away from writing political poems because they don’t inspire me.  I’ve seen enough and don’t want to read poetry about my work. I also think
it is easy for political/agenda poetry to become propaganda, or a tool for those who wish to control

Sometimes Agenda Writing is Based on Inadequate Research

There is another reason why I am skeptical of agenda poetry. In my screenwriting classes we are taught not to bring an agenda to our writing, despite many who do it anyway.  Movies produced to affect a change in policy are usually not highly regarded by professional writers. It is a cheap manipulative trick, or so the belief goes.  However, there have been many movies that have achieved box office success pushing an agenda.

When I first started as a young lawyer interning for the Texas 3rd Court of Appeals, one of the judges sat down to talk to me over lunch one day.  He was a major player in the state Democratic machine.  He gave me what I think to be some of the best advice I’ve ever had.  He said, When you analyze the case, it is imperative that you do not make up your mind as to what the outcome should be before you read the case, apply the law and follow the facts, not the other way around.  Some opinions by some courts in Texas are weighted less than others.  The 3rd Court of Appeals was known for sound opinions, free of an agenda.

So many times we reach an opinion before doing exhaustive research, convinced that we are right, often making erroneous assumptions.  We hear a news pundit, or celebrity, spout an opinion, take it for fact, and march off carrying our banner without really knowing what the truth is.  Many times, upon further consideration, we would not choose the opinions we have, but many of us immediately become entrenched on our positions never looking under the surface.

Why do you Read Poetry-For its Emotional Content, the Language, the Sounds?

This brings me back to poetry with an agenda.  Poetry is important to a lot of people for a lot of different reasons.  Some enjoy words, others like the emotions or scenes evoked, still others are searching for healing or comfort and some are trying to change the world.  Many famous poets are known for their political poetry. 

Is what we are told in fiction and screenplay writing classes relevant to poetry?

Let the characters write the novel, let them breathe.  Sometimes you will think the book is going to be about one thing and your characters have a different idea. 

 After my husband died, I would get online at night, unable to sleep, and turn my tears into a poem.  I posted them to my online support group. Often, I intended to rail at God or indict God, the lawyer that I am.  Instead, I would be surprised by my ending.  What would start out as a rant to God, Why, Why, Why, would turn into an affirmation of God, the world, the beauty that still remained. I used to say, I don’t know who just wrote that because that is not what I intended to write! In other words, my agenda was high jacked by the honesty of the poem.

Can Political/Agenda Poetry Avoid Manipulation?

Writing poetry with an agenda in mind may not be all bad, but it can be tricky.  The quality of good poetry depends on the degree of research into the issue and whether or not the poet allows the poem to breathe, or if the poet wrestles the pen to maintain control.  With good research and a willingness to let the facts fall where they fall, at least the issues will be presented honestly and not from an overly-
emotional knee-jerk understanding.

Meaningful poetry often comes from somewhere beyond our thoughts, our ego, our minds.  If we take the facts that make up our political agenda and let them fall where they may, presenting them honestly, the poem will not be a poem with an agenda, rather a poem about life. Poets paint pictures with words.  If we are honest in our painting, how can it be called agenda poetry?

I would love to hear what you think about this issue.
Do you write poetry from a political position or agenda?
Do you think political poetry is good?
What is your favorite political poem?
Is political poetry only good if you agree with the position of the poet?
How can we write good political poetry?

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Collin Kelley said...

I had an entire chapbook of political poetry published by Finishing Line Press in 2008. It was a condemnation of the Bush years, Hurricane Katrina, race relations, body image and more. I don't think all of it holds up well now, but I consider it a snapshot into that time. I encourage people to write what moves and motivates them, even if it isn't the "fashionable" thing to do.

Poet on Poetry said...

Good point, Collin! It seems like it could hold up better if you write about the generalties of war, politics, corruption, etc. instead of tying it to a specific person. Do you agree?

When you say it doesn't all hold up now, is it because it is no longer accurate or it is dated?

Good advice to write what moves and motivates you.

Thank you for taking the time to comment!

unquietborder said...

I guess I have believed for a long time that the personal IS political and vice versa.

Poet on Poetry said...

That's food for thought unquiet border. I feel the same away about confessional or personal poetry. The personal is the universal.