Manifesto (First Draft)

Poetry is Politics

Language is inevitably and unavoidably political. The process of creating language is the process of naming things, and with naming things comes power. Power structures are inherently political. The distinction between ‘cow’ and ‘beef’ demonstrates this. The poor and disenfranchised farmers, who spoke Old English, stuck with their word for the big lowing beast, while those who served it to the Norman conquerors had to use their French word. But the fact that the Anglo-Saxons called the beast a cow in the first place must have come from a power imbalance; the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Celts all had their own languages at one point. The fact that ‘cú’ is used, rather than ‘kyr’ or ‘bo’ or any of the alternatives empowers one subsection.

It is impossible to try and de-politicise the use of language. One crass (and multilingual) example is the UEFA Champions League theme music, the enthralling words of which are a mixture of French, German and English. This is clearly a political decision. For a pan-European event, it seems sensible to use multiple languages. However, the flaw is obvious; there are more than three languages in Europe. In fact, there are 11 Germanic languages alone. According to Wikipedia there are 42 languages with over a million speakers, and another 56 with fewer. So why choose these three languages for the anthem; they are not even the most commonly spoken languages in Europe. Russian and Italian both have more native speakers than English. So presumably the reason for using French, English and German is that the nations are the most influential in Europe and in UEFA. So again, it is political.

Visit one of the Autonomous Communities in Spain that is multilingual. Inspect the street signs. You will soon discover that the politics of language can be significant on the level of letters. In the Valencian Community, some signs refer, in Castilian, to ‘Jijona’. Others use Catalan and point instead to ‘Xixona’. What is remarkable is that almost every single sign, no matter what language it uses, has its ‘J’s replaced with ‘X’s, or vice versa. There are bilingual signs that have the both languages altered.

The politics of language underlie every single thing that is written down, including poetry. The poet can write about anything they want, but the politics will always be lingering like the invisible lice that live in your eyebrows. A poet should consider the politics behind their choice of words; the tone of a piece will be altered, depending on whether the poet uses Latinate words or playing with sentence structure, as in Milton’s Paradise Lost, or monosyllabic, guttural words, derived from the Anglo-Saxon. Using the vernacular rather than dictionary forms changes how a poem is read. Using archaisms change how the poem is read. All of these alterations have politics at their heart. By using heightened language, or in fact any language that doesn’t spill out of their mouths like albumen from a cracked egg, a poet is creating an indelible connection between themselves and poetic tradition, whether knowingly or otherwise. They are borrowing the credibility of O’Hara, Dickinson, Wordsworth, Blake, Shakespeare, Milton, Spenser, Donne, Ponge, Wyatt, Chaucer. If they eschew this connection, they are politically severing the ties between past and present.

Patrick

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9 thoughts on “Manifesto (First Draft)

  1. raefonb

    Solid angle, mate. Maybe some day we as a group should dissect a piece (preferably a short one! lol) one of us has written and examine every word choice and the potential politics behind each. I’d like to think we already put a lot of thought into the lexis we wield in our poems, but perhaps we only look at the surface politics. I

    p.s. I already knew that about the mites but had forgotten and now my eyebrows are itchy haha.

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    1. pjsars Post author

      That would be fun! I don’t think I made my point very well, but I was trying to say that there are never ending meanings to poems, because of all the connotations that different people bring to different words. Just by using a word you draw up connections between your poem and the poetry of other. For example, I used the word ‘fumble’ in a poem about remembrance poppies because, for me, it’s one of the most important words in Dulce et Decorum Est (‘an ecstasy of fumbling’ – what a line!). And because of the poet’s ability to create links and connections with other poetry, writing, etc, we have a lot of creative power that can be left untapped

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  2. raefonb

    Ah I see, so you were talking about even the personal/literary associations that people have as well. Do you see that as having a negative side too, in terms of miscommunication? Like…can we ever 100% communicate exactly what we mean? The abstractions thing we looked at got me thinking about this again: you could use the word ‘table’ in a poem and you meant a medium-sized kitchen table but I see plastic patio table and Emily sees coffee-table and…is this the magic of literature or the downfall? On the one hand, you transplanted a table into my head and that’s powerful, but on the other hand my brain messed up the picture because it isn’t your brain, so we still aren’t seeing the same thing.

    Disclaimer: I swear I’m not smoking or drinking anything, let’s blame it on the mild delirium of feeling a little under the weather…

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    1. pjsars Post author

      I think it can be The Magic and The Downfall (which is definitely going to be the title of my first collection). But the capacity for confusion needs to be in the mind of the poet so that he/she can use it to their advantage. If the poem is enriched by me seeing a mid-sized kitchen table but you seeing a plastic patio table then great, but if that weakens the point of the poem then the poet needs to be aware that it’s possible and to strive against it.

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  3. deirdrenicm

    Interesting points on the political nature of language, multiplied many times if we try to translate a piece of writing interlingually, or even intralingually. Probably the nature of poetry is its capacity to hold and carry more than its net weight in words; each word works so hard to hold multiple meanings or possibilities. Also as Raef says, interpretation of words depends on personal experience and conditioning.
    On poetry and politics, Brecht’s poetry (not his plays) might be worth looking at for the idea that poetry can communicate to a wide public, be useful, for frequent consultation, e.g. his Hauspostille. Combination of lyric and social conscience/commentary. Reasonable translations available.

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    1. pjsars Post author

      Great point, I hadn’t really thought about the consequences and difficulties raised in translating a piece. You’re spot on about ‘the nature of poetry’ – certainly it is true of *good* poetry (though perhaps a poem doesn’t need to be dripping with different meanings to be good?)

      I will be sure to check out Brecht (or Brek as Heaney’s mother would have it), thank you for the tip.

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  4. raefonb

    Thanks for the Brecht recommendation, Deidre. My research topic for this module is currently gentrification/social housing and I’ve been pondering to what extent poetry can influence political communities.

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