Tom Sastry writes about politics, connection and what poetry is for
According to a famous old joke, the time until nuclear fusion provides us with limitless clean energy is a constant in physics: it is always thirty years from now. This joke is told at the expense of engineers who are the ones who have to solve the practical problems, the fundamental science having been done.
I suspect the engineers find it annoying, by which I mean heartbreaking.
Poetry has its own equivalent, thanks to endowed posh-boy turned activist-poet PB Shelley. Poets are supposed to be the unacknowledged legislators of the world. According to fans of this quip, poetry which does not have the power to change the world is a self-indulgent waste of time. Having established the purpose of poetry, the theorists resume their seats, leaving poets with the near-certainty of failure.
This time, the joke is on the theorists, because an unacknowledged law barely exists. Isn’t that the point of Ozymandias? Isn’t that the point of disobedience?
Last month I saw Warsan Shire and Asmaa Jama read in Bristol. Usually I recognise half the faces at any Bristol poetry event. This was different. The audience was younger. It included young Somali women whose feeling of connection to the poets and their work was obvious. I would not be surprised to read in a few years that some brilliant new writer was inspired by the occasion.
On my social media feeds I see small initiatives addressing, as well as any of us know how, the horror of war. There are poetry readings and attempts to bring the work of Ukrainian poets to an English-speaking audience.
I think this is what people mean when they argue that poetry needs to be a force in the world to earn its place in the world. These things bridge the gap between the grand idea of poetry and the reality of a minority pastime.
I am going to suggest a different spin on the same truth – that poetry is a human activity which matters because of the effect it has on human beings.
For me, the extent to which that human effect is described in political terms, or seen as a form of activism, is secondary. What matters is the effect itself. Whenever poetry makes people feel braver, or less pressured to be brave, or more hopeful, or less pressured to be hopeful, it is good.
I don’t like how pious this is getting. Poetry doesn’t have to be good. It doesn’t have to matter. It can just be a thing you do.
There is a problem with all attempts to declare some poems more important – politically and socially – than others. A set of values which makes strong statements about what poems are for will always favour those who arbitrate the rules. A small class of commentators decides what work is presented to you as vital, necessary or urgent. Judgements about relevance are as likely to be contaminated by snobbery and in-group back-scratching as aesthetic judgments.
Poetry is small – it is not as diverse and open as we would wish – but poetry review culture is smaller, less open and less diverse. That is not a swipe at poetry reviewers as a group; it is an eternal truth about the relationship between creative cultures and review cultures.
I wrote poetry as a teenager and a young adult. I was mostly interested in being a poet, only a little in poetry itself. My idea of being a poet was two hundred years out of date. The poems were very bad, as is normal.
I stopped when I entered a relationship and began writing again as that relationship ended. By that point I had started writing songs and performing at open mics.
People read poems at these nights so I started sharing my own. I discovered the exchange that takes place between poet and audience. I was able to enjoy it because I wasn’t consumed by the difficulty of playing and singing the right notes (I am a terrible musician).
Poets sometimes claim that a poem is not complete until it is read to an audience. This seems snobbish to me. It’s saying that someone who, for whatever reason, does not share their poetry from a stage is only half a poet.
But there is a directness that comes from sharing a poem at a live event, or on a forum where comments appear in real time. Feedback is immediate. A moment is shared as well as a piece of work.
This exchange, in which I find most of the meaning of poetry, happens most powerfully at community events, where the divide between poet and audience is thinnest; and where earnest discussion about the aesthetics or political importance of poems seems most out of place.
I think I have finally worked out what I’m trying to say. I’m nervous because while I think I believe it, I also fear it may be nonsense, perhaps even reactionary nonsense. In other words, it explores in the same uncertain territory as a good poem.
Poetry – before it is politically important, before it claims to give a voice to the voiceless, before it is technically skilled, before it is any damn good at all – facilitates an exchange. I hear your poem; you read mine. We thank each other for the gift of our work, both suspecting that the greater gift is given by the reader or the audience.
I think this is where poetry comes into its own. It’s true that a similar exchange can take place through lawn bowls or macrame, but most poetry is an attempt to bridge the gap between what our everyday personae allow us to show the world and our private selves. The exchange of this gift has more power than almost any other. The more unheard the poet feels, the more powerful it is.
In acknowledging a poem, we acknowledge the mystery of the other – the existence within them of something elusive whose existence they have dared to assert. This happens several times at every poetry open mic. It is much rarer that a poem is so beautiful or revelatory that it matters purely for its own sake.
I may not believe poems have to be politically important but I do like political writing. In fact, I have just written a book of poems largely about politics and myth making. A few of the poems have a political purpose; more often I write about how any politics feels – how its crude generalisations can both support and silence those it claims to speak for; how politics tells stories; how we are sometimes the victims of these stories, sometimes the storytellers, sometimes the protagonists.
I am curious about what a political take on the world helps to explain, what it struggles to explain and what it obscures. Politics is the conversation societies have with themselves about their future. If we can discover what we are unable to say to each other, we can see how we are failing, how we might do better.
I have described my book in these terms many times. I want it to sound interesting. Probably I want to sound clever.
Sometimes I think I have ignored the most important things. I was never really writing about ideas until I tried to explain what I had written. The poems are about things I have felt deeply. I wanted them to be beautiful. I wanted them to reach someone.
One of the things I kept thinking while editing the book is this: we fail our politics, and our politics fails us.
We are all part of a bigger story (several bigger stories) but the bigger story is only a part of us. We make common cause with others so that part of our story can be heard. We pay a price: the collective – the nation, the movement, the party, the bubble – talks over other parts of our story which it finds inconvenient. We are never represented satisfactorily.
Even worse, politics corrupts our better nature. Political communication of all kinds – and that includes poems written with a political purpose – turns generalisations into universal truths. It denies uncertainty, celebrates rage, and presents a fantasy of perfect moral clarity. These are the vices of politics. They have the power to kill. But to disown politics itself would be the extreme of pacifism: accepting cruelty and injustice because we fear the ugliness of resistance.
And poetry? Where slogans deny complexity, a good poem engages with it and makes resolution feel possible. This makes poetry subversive of any cause it adopts. Leaders – of countries or struggles – want you to forget how they have edited reality to give you a simple message you can repeat in the cafe, on the street, or on social media. Poetry will not forget. It works against its own side, or at least against the lazy bullshit of its own side.
In other words, the political purpose best suited to poetry is not to help your side resist the other; it is to help your side to be better than the thing it asks you to resist.
I almost sound as though I know what I think. That is always dangerous. So I am going to stretch this argument for poetry, until the thread snaps. What if I claim that poetry stands against all lazy bullshit. Not just the lazy bullshit of your own politics; the lazy bullshit of love; of despair; of hope.
But you might need a bit of lazy bullshit. You’re at the open mic. Someone stands up with an ego full of meaning. Roses are red / today I feel blue / you did me wrong/ I’ll get rid of you. It’s not a work of genius but as it happens, it’s exactly what you needed to hear. You congratulate the poet. Isn’t that part of the sacred exchange I was celebrating earlier?
What am I saying now? That poetry allows a form of questioning which is best suited to sniping at political rhetoric? It’s a nice get-out. Don’t come to me for answers (or commitment): I’m a poet.
We’re back at the open mic, I am sitting next to you, ready to read a poem which has been through forty drafts. You lavish praise on the Roses are red poet. I am secretly furious. I dismiss your opinion because it clashes with my ideals.
It is easy to be an arsehole when you have ideals. You can use your ideals as a reason to denigrate others. But to compensate, one of your ideals can be: don’t be that arsehole.
One of the nice things about poetry is that we can, if we choose, draft and redraft. We can test each version against our ideals. My ideal for my own poetry is every word in its place and no valid doubt hidden. It reflects virtues which come relatively easily to me. You may have your own idea of poetry, reflecting virtues which come more easily to you.
We can edit our behaviours too – another way of saying we can learn from our mistakes. Here too, I am striving for an ideal. My ideal for behaviour in poetry communities is: the connection is always worth more than the poem.
These two ideals have to co-exist.
One day, not long from now, I will write a poem which reflects my (perhaps excessive) resistance to simple answers. I will think (perhaps) too hard about it, rewrite it many times, put all of myself into it, then edit most of myself out. I will give the poem everything I have learnt in my years of obsessive attention to poetry.
I will take my poem into the world and place it in front of strangers and friends, the best I can give. I will let it hang in the space on an equal footing with all other efforts. I will try to accept the audience loving what it loves. I will try to accept what everyone offers as genuine. I will try to congratulate everyone. Hopefully, they will try to congratulate me.
This, for me, is the source. It’s where I find meaning in poetry. It’s where I return, to rediscover my feeling for it. And my best advice for any poet – the only advice I will not be ashamed of imposing on you – is to find the source of your feeling for poetry and to return there when you can. Anything else you care about – the craft, the method, the performance, the generosity, the effect – will follow if you can keep that feeling alive. You will do with your poetry what you need to. It will be good.