Of empires, power and poetry

0 Posted by - January 24, 2011 - Blog, Editorial, Word

Whether written or spoken, rhymed, rhythmic or free verse, the aesthetics of words are a mirror for how some of us attempt to influence and define the world where we live. Have poets shaped the political world ? Is the political world itself deeply poetical? The answer depends in part on what we include in our definition of poetry and who we consider to be poets. Can war propaganda or marketing campaigns be poetic?

Poetry may be ethically neutral in itself, but it nonetheless serves its masters. In the hands of the elite or the underprivileged, poetry is a form of power. Poetry – this exercise in contemplation, regardless of the form it takes – often forces kings and heroes to make poets of themselves, and occasionally turns poets into kings and heroes.

I once came across a definition of poetry proposing that it is the art of expressing an idea in the fewest words possible. Which is rubbish. A good example to the contrary is how easily a person can tell another off with two rather tactless and artless words in the English language. Now, true poetry on this front is rather found in the words of Cyrano de Bergerac, Rostand’s famous long-nosed hero, who spoke in long and convoluted insults that brought out all the potential of ignobility… ‘À la fin de l’envoi, je touche.’ The longer the insult lasts, the stronger its arrogance, the more potent its audacity, the funnier its effect.

Which is not to say that short poetry does not have its fair share of sublime moments. To see how, one needs only read William Carlos Williams. A medical doctor by profession, he is said to have written the poem below after witnessing the death of a child. Using simple items, it creates a mundane, life-goes-on, and yet torturous impression of the living and the inanimate, outside, as viewed from the window of the deceased’ bedroom.

so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white

If length can be effectively dismissed as a measure of poetry, since the strength of words varies without regard to the cumulative number of syllables, we must consider an alternative, perhaps wider definition. Poetry, in my opinion, tries to convey a message in a way that maximizes its aesthetics, at the risk overstating aspects of the idea or leaving out details, information, and explications, so that the reader may be engaged beyond their isolated capacity to reason, and into the realms of intuition, emotion, imagination, etc. That is how we find ourselves crippled by the weight of Williams’ light words, and uplifted and humoured by Rostand’s descent into wickedness.

This is the power of words. I feel nausea when Kafka’s Joseph K. walks the corridors of his cerebral courtroom. I burst out laughing in public places, all eyes staring back at my madness, because I’m imagining Douglas Adam’s robot Marvin complaining about his sore diodes. When words achieve such physical effects, or engage you so far as to create a reaction, then they come off the page, leave the world of ideas and begin to shape the real world. Words only have power insofar as they can escape the page on which they are written, or escape the ephemeral nature of sound, by inspiring actions, physical reactions and further propagating themselves. For words to become powerful in the political landscape, they must be persuasive. Thus, poetry and politics converge in the art of rhetoric.

If we take the example of the conquest of space, we find a clear example of what I would consider the poetics of politics and human events. The race for the moon begins with John F. Kennedy’s brilliant speech at Rice University in 1962, in which, using both repetitions and rhythm, he explained, “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others too.”

When this quest ended with the Eagle landing in the Sea of Tranquility, a series of words which contained the idea from its inception to its culmination and confirmation, escaped from the mouth of Neil Armstrong, an idea so succinct and well said, itt reads just like a verse:

“That’s one small step for a man.
One giant leap for mankind.”

If science is what brought us to the moon, it was the aesthetics of words which drove humanity to that end, and celebrated and realized its accomplishment.

In the quest for social progress, poetry also plays an equally pivotal role. A brilliant example of this was Allan Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ a pithy, brutal contestation unleashed against what the author perceived as a homophobic, conformist, bigoted, paranoid America during the 1950s. When it was published in 1957, the book was confiscated, and its publisher arrested. An obscenity trial would soon proceed, in favour of the defendant. The poem sparked controversy and inspired a generation in the midst of a process of social evolution marked by the civil rights movement, the anti-war movements and the fight against homophobia.

The 8-page title poem starts like this:

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,/
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night, /
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz, /
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated, /
who passed through universities with radiant eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war, /
who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull,”

The poet gave a voice to the voiceless and the underprivileged. Throughout ‘Howl’ Ginsberg depicts a society where those who are different or who think and act in ways that oppose majority are being excluded from speaking, kicked out of academies, locked up in prisons. Consequently, they are constantly attempting to escape, whether in philosophy, religion, drugs, or as his friend Jack Kerouac described… ‘on the road.’

If it is an abstraction to say that Howl led to or contributed to the rise of equal rights for homosexuals, to changes regarding the internment of the ‘mad’, and to the breakdown of oppression against free thinkers during the 50s and 60s, it is in any event impossible to prove. But there are other examples. In Ancient Greece, the poet and statesman Solon stepped up against the oligarchy and corruption of his time and instituted radical, short-term social revolution without shedding blood. Once elected to office, Solon pardoned the debts which were keeping the people subdued to the oligarchs and rewrote the constitution to widen access to voting and public office. One of his verses gives us a glimpse of his preoccupations:

Some wicked men are rich, some good are poor;
We will not change our virtue for their store:
Virtue’s a thing that none can take away,
But money changes owners all the day.

The policies which Solon bequeathed led to the democratization of Athens and to what we now call the Athenian Golden Age, a short period of great prosperity and intellectual development during which the Parthenon was built, and during which some of the greatest minds in history flourished: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Pericles, and Euridipes.

A modern example of poets leading the way to social progress can be found closer to home: Quebec’s Quiet Revolution between the late 1950’s and early 1970’s. A movement by which the francophones decolonized their economy and social relations with the Montreal Anglophone elite, through state intervention, the Quiet Revolution’s founding ideas were first formulated in the 1948 ‘Refus global’ a declaration by artists and poets regarding the plight of their co-citizens against the socio-economic and religious conditions of the time.

Politics are poetic because without rhetoric and persuasion, politics are nothing. And poetics, while they are not obliged to be political by nature, are nonetheless an essential part of social progress, because their quest for aesthetics in language is often a precursor to a greater, less tangible, and more fleeting quest: achieving the aesthetics of human harmony. And this harmony comes is the form of consensus. Without persuasion and equal voices for all, there cannot be consensus; there cannot be true civilization… there can only be tyranny and colonialism.

On this point, Gandhi said it best, and in the fewest words possible. It was a reply to the question, ‘What do you think about Western Civilization?’

‘I think it would be a good idea.’



They stay behind, stand
Sweaty or shirtless, sizzling by the curb, across from the
Shelter, and smoke
Cuss (how improper!) and wonder
In the plummeting afternoon, July’s torrid heat

If the coffee’s going to be cold by the time
The six o’clock doors

Unlock. “Patience, please.”


Passer-bys (why intrude?) look and look
Offended, cross the street
Diagonally to avoid reaching that curb
And head fast-paced towards their lattés in the market
Head bent down, gazing at their own toes


The ones who got there before capacity yesterday, now,
At daybreak, see their soggy
Toasts through crusty eyes
Can’t taste the cardboard on their
Dry yellow tongues, nor tar and coffee sips.

“Bon Appétit. Thank the Lord.”

Before the hour
Forced back onto their curb,
Reversed prison doors

Unlock. “Quickly, please.”

Lead them out. Lock them out.
The moment is a minute (go have a smoke.)
That lasts until six.

The Apogee

This is the golden age:
Encircling temple walls
Death, famine and plague

This is the golden age:
Ceremonial masks
Fortresses and rage

Metal bullet centurions
Plexiglas placards
Salute the Plebeian Assembly

Fear Rubicon droplets
Martial bloods
Flow through triumphal arches

Fleeing Senate
Coming Tyrant

Conquer future
With forward sword

The dying reign’s hunger knows no end.
Behold Jupiter swallow His own children!

Exhaust smoke plumes
Sway like prayers in Tartarus
Saturn awakens from captivity

In a retreating silence
Glacial, he says, “Jupiter
You are I
My son
And I

“The cage and
I fall back and fall back
And shall become the past
Give birth to progeny and parents
Sky Ouranus and Earth Tellus”

In infancy Father Time is no phage.
This is the olden adage.


Yuri Cormier’s poetry and writing can be found at his blog Styrofoam Afterlife.

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