Writing: Where I’ve Been — Letter to a Poet: Political Poetry

Writing: Where I’ve Been  —  Introduction

The writing that appears in this category, “Writing: Where I’ve Been” is a mixture of styles, written as I was searching for the narrative voice that most nearly suited me and the material that has become most important to me. Each piece is annotated with background information. Some stories were intended to be read as fiction though they were substantially true; in those instances I have explained what is fact and what is fiction. Some of these pieces were published in slightly different forms; I have noted any previous publication.

Re-reading some of what I wrote in past years has been useful for me, not only in matters of insight, but in matters of writing style. I can see things I would write differently today, but I have also discovered writing I consider good that has had few or no other readers. Technically, these are either unpublished works, or published and uncollected, meaning they have not appeared in a book.

Each of these writings was part of a thought process that resulted in other writing; readers may see the roots of ideas that appeared in later work.

I invite writers and aspiring writers to read these texts as part of your study of how writing develops. Remember, I think revision is the second most important part of writing (after thinking), so you might consider how you would revise and improve a particular story. Be inspired; be amazed; be annoyed! You might even comment, and I may— or may not— respond.

No matter what your response, I’ve posted these especially for writers in the hope they will help you to keep writing until you find the style and voice that particularly suits you. Then write your life with the variety and enthusiasm with which I continue to write my own


Letter to a Poet: Political Poetry

LMHwriter06For years, I wasn’t sure I was a poet, because my poems were about cows and grass instead of Big Ideas and Philosophical Stuff.

Similarly, while I firmly believe in higher education, people who stay in college too long begin to believe that physical labor— like pumping gas, cleaning houses, or growing corn— is humiliating. Some college graduates regard any job requiring a desk as distinguished, no matter what effect it may have on society; wearing glasses and balancing a paunch over the belt indicates an even a higher degree of achievement. But I digress; studying too much causes digressions, too.

I now believe that my writing is about large issues cleverly disguised as small ones.  I have always admired poets who can write overtly political work— Poetic Paean to a Political Activist or Sonnet on Saving the Planet— but I can’t. In addition, while a writer struggles to rhyme “pollution” and “oil spills,” he isn’t acting to stop pollution. Writing can become a respectable and secure alternative for sticking your nose out where someone who disagrees with you can poke it. It’s uncomplicated to sit behind a computer, logically consider all views, vote “no opinion,” and do nothing. Or to sit behind the computer, logically consider all views, and pick one to malign and ridicule; it’s rare that one side or the other doesn’t offer rich fuel for satire.

But it’s harder to be detached when you’re up to your knees in muck hauling a sick otter out of the bay, or sitting through a county commission meeting, only to be called a Commie Pinko Pervert when you state what you thought was a compromise.

I see parallels between political inactivity and academic poems: perfectly formed lines composed between classes in an air‑conditioned office about perfectly formed lines constructed between classes in an air‑conditioned office. Naval‑gazing. Speculations on the Nature of Matter, Especially As It Relates To the Poet’s Love Life. Documented Dialogue With Dead Poets By a Poet Who Never Lived. It is possible to be intensely philosophical and accomplish nothing.

Good poetry does emerge from academia; I confess I don’t often write formal verse because I can never remember that the rhyme scheme of a villanelle is A b A’, a b A, a b A’, a b A, a b A’, a b A A’, and after I look it up, frankly, I don’t much care.

PoetrySoftware GroupBut others have solved this dilemma; poetry software has arrived. The user, who will not be called a “poet” if I can help it, chooses, for example, to write a Shakespearean sonnet. Fourteen blank lines appear on the computer screen with the stress and accent pattern of iambic pentameter clearly indicated. The operator fills in the rhyming words first, then “connects the dots” backward to create the poem. That’s a direct quote from the manufacturer: “connects the dots.” If the user is too intelligence-challenged, busy, or lazy to operate a rhyming dictionary, rhyming software is also obtainable.

These developments are a giant leap downward in the art of writing; I predict batches of the miserable stuff will soon flood an already‑saturated market, while users of the software dash off letters hotly defending it as “real poetry.” Dissenters will be scorned as Stone Age writers. Since I intend to be among them, I’ll say I think a fitting remedy for poor writing would be to carve a poem in marble with a hammer and chisel.

Another reason I have trouble writing Important Political Poetry is that I digress, and therefore am, and therefore write about things like planting gardens. The more I do physical labor, the more important I believe it to be, and the more I write about it. Frustration awaits one who fights sloppy writing or pollution by writing letter to the editor, or by refusing Styrofoam, mulching newspapers, and taking short showers.

LMHjuniperLC91Attempting to reason with legislators and other elected officials is even more daunting. Picture yourself listening to the news at day’s end, exhausted from hard conservation work. A drunk driver, hired by a careless company that is incredibly rich because millions of us insist on driving large cars, just dumped oil over the finest wildlife area in the nation. You may feel your meager efforts have been in vain. People who have spent the day planting trees, or growing safe food are less disheartened because we can see what we have done, even if we only preserve the patch of ground we inhabit.

Academia has many benefits; young poets should study the history of their language to learn ideas that will reverberate in rhyme, myth, or the music of their work. But academics often view anything that gets dirt under their fingernails as beneath their dignity, and anyone with muscles as a moron; those jokes about the intelligence of football players didn’t originate in a locker room, and there is more Walter Mitty in most people who teach than they would care to admit. I’ve been a spy in the academic camps often enough to speak from experience; I quit teaching whenever I can no longer stand to spend five working days explaining to engineering students, for example, why they should be able to write English with moderate skill. Nor are legislative action and political meetings worthless; choose your torture.

Concerted political action often leads to the spectacle of a champion hotly defending freedom from censorship in principle, while cringing at the specific piece of art that caused the problem, like a cross dunked in urine. Meanwhile, opponents screech about pornography and misuse of public money. Unnoticed, artists create, and polluters defile, making a lot of progress while we chatter.

In the end, I believe one writes, and acts, as he or she must. The sooner you stop feeling as though your subject is not worthy of poetry or prose, the less time you will waste, and the better your work will become.

*  *  *

© 1991, Linda M. Hasselstrom

Originally published in slightly different form as “Letter to a Poet: Political Poetry,” New Letters, Vol. 58, No. 1, Fall, 1991, pp. 45-48.

Afterword to “Letter to a Poet: Political Poetry”:

The idea for this essay probably began in the late 1980’s, when there was a lot of discussion about writing political poetry, with overtones suggesting that if a person was “just” writing about love or death or marriage, one was not Doing One’s Duty as a Poet to Prod the National Conscience.

Exxon-ValdezOne of the inspiring incidents, of course, was the Exxon Valdez incident of March, 1989, referred to in the essay.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

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