The Spontaneous Overflow of Powerful Feelings: Poetry as a Political Response

After listening to failed prosecutor Bob McCulloch debase the English language for 15 minutes on Monday night, repeatedly exculpating himself in favor of blaming social media, I felt ready to turn to the language of poetry. But I have to admit that I wasn’t (emotionally) ready for Tuesday’s post-Ferguson outpouring of what I’ll just call, for the sake of shorthand, response poems. Thankfully, as yesterday proved, response or reaction poems don’t have to be politically reactionary.

I was first rocked by Danez Smith’s “Not an Elegy for Mike Brown,” the title of which plainly calls out the strengths and limitations of a response poem. The entire thing is heartbreaking, even more so for its thoroughgoing elegance and rage. This stanza in particular strikes at literary culture by linking it to the desecration of black life:

think: once, a white girl

was kidnapped & that’s the Trojan war.

later, up the block, Troy got shot
& that was Tuesday. are we not worthy

of a city of ash? of 1000 ships
launched because we are missed?

always, something deserves to be burned.
it’s never the right thing now a days.

So much work is done here. Racism is tied to militarism; both are put squarely in the craw of a Western tradition that bends the arch of culture always towards white lore and white triumph and white justification of violence. Originally published at Split This Rock in August, the poem’s re-publication proves its ongoing immediacy. And the idea that it draws strength from its relevance is also heartbreaking when you consider the poem will retain its power for the rest of our lives.

Much more controversial was Frederick Seidel’s “The Ballad of Ferguson, Missouri.” I have to admit that I question The Paris Review‘s decision to publish the poem yesterday, considering that Seidel writes through a complex of persona and confession, at once privileging the life of a white, highly educated rich man and damning it. On the other hand, Seidel, who is from St. Louis, has written in a complicated way about race since his first published collection. I’ll leave the question of publication for the reader to decide, but I don’t think this means the poem is wholly uninteresting.

Seidel’s poem, certainly written in advance of Monday evening, weirdly diagnoses the spectacle of desecrated black life at the hands of the state:

One of the monitors at the Mars base drone station
Is carefully considering all your moves for terror output.
But not to worry. Forget about about about it.

The body of the man you were
Has disappeared inside the one you wear.

The poem echoes the distracting gibberish of the official narrative — “Forget about about about it” — delivered by McCulloch and even President Obama, while hinting at its dark underbelly. The drones are watching “all your moves,” it says. Like a baby boomer, the narrator remembers (as Seidel’s narrator often does) Robert Kennedy speaking to a black audience on the night of Martin Luther King’s assassination “by a white man.” It recognizes that the violence exacted by the state against black life will stoke political retribution:

A man has disappeared inside his corpse.
His corpse has disappeared inside a cause.

And it ends with a proclamation, one that suggests Civil Rights-era protests may not prove enough against an even more entrenched, militarized police state:

Martin Luther King is dead.

Seidel’s poem now lingers as a response to the events in Ferguson, even if the decision to publish resulted from a limited emotional reaction. This reactive quality highlights the response poem (and its publication) as a curious, difficult thing to qualify. Coleridge loosely defined the poem (in general) as the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” and nowhere is this more true than in the poem that reacts to political or social upheaval, either local or global. Before, during, after terrible or monumental events: the emotions of observers and participants often overflow. This in no way implies that response poems trade literary quality for social impact or, in today’s terms, virality. Many poems widely accepted as canonical were written (or were claimed to be written) in a one-draft swoop, like Coleridge’s own “Kubla Khan” or Wallace Stevens’ “The Emperor of Ice Cream.”

Over the years, I’ve heard countless complaints about “political poetry” written in the wake of announcements of war or plainly racist explosions of state violence, like what we’re witnessing in Ferguson and the greater US right now. But no rubric from above, no despotic critical attitude, should damn artistic explosions of pain and feeling.

Take W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939,” written in response to the outbreak of World War II and published only weeks later. Monday night, while reading countless tweets from friends who wanted a “misery drink” in response to the injustice in Ferguson, I couldn’t help but think of its opening lines:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

The misery drink, the “waves of anger” and fear: today this might be seen as resolutely emo, a spontaneous reaction or overflow. But it also strikes a chord in the present.

My only point is that sometimes the spontaneous reaction — whether to write or to publish — is the more effective or at least more revealing response; and, of course, sometimes it isn’t. For now, though, the publication, re-publication, and sharing of such poetry, old or new, is an affront to the prevailing order, which tells us that everything we do outside their purview amounts to conflicting testimony. The keyword now is conflict.