Poetry, Politics & Position Papers

The saga concerning what is, apparently, a continuing scandal in Holland was updated with a poem from Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, the author who had originally been nominated by Gorman to translate her inaugural poem, The Hill We Climb. Rijneveld, if you don’t already know, was firmly disinvited from climbing said hill by Janice Deul, a critic at de Volkskrant (because Rijneveld wasn’t born with the right skin color and body parts). Rijniveld claimed to be shocked by the criticism, writing, ““I am shocked by the uproar surrounding my involvement in the spread of Amanda Gorman’s message… However, I realise that I am in a position to think and feel that way, where many are not.”

One can well imagine that Rijniveld was shocked—just shocked. Rijniveld is nonbinary and surely never considered themselves a member of the previleged class. And so it must have been a definitive shock for Rijniveld to discover that in the great spreadsheet of race, gender and privilege, said author discovered themselves firmly moved from the opressed minority column to the privileged, old, white European column who had no business translating the poetry of a dynamic young, black woman or, as Deul put it: a “spoken-word artist, young, female and unapologetically Black”. Skin color trumps all.

And so, Rijniveld, now an apologetically white, gender-asterisked European, wrote a poem called Everything inhabitable. And it’s this, really, that got my attention more than the identity politics. (And forgive my mordant sense of humor. I do have sympathy for Rijniveld—who asked for none of this.) Rijniveld’s poem caught my attention because while news outlets generally aren’t in the habit of publishing poetry, The Guardian not only published the poem but drew attention to it in a subsequent article. Why? And what’s weird about the subsequent article is just how apropos it is. The Guardian treats/analyzes the poem not as a work of literature but as a kind of press release and position paper. Here’s an example:

“In the poem, Rijneveld sets out in the second person how they are ‘against all of humankind’s boxing in’, and how they have ‘never been too lazy to stand up, to face / up to all the bullies and fight pigeonholing with your fists / raised’.

The Guardian continues its analysis of Rijniveld’s poetry with all the panache of a bored freshman high school student and journalist who otherwise dreamed of being a war correspondent. It’s a political poem; and if you look up political poetry, you’ll find this interesting paragraph at Wikipedia:

Some critics argue that political poetry can not exist, stating that politics do not belong with and can not be incorporated with traditional definitions of poetry. One of the most vivid examples of this comes from a 1968 essay, “Studies in English Literature: Restoration and Eighteenth Century”, written by A.L. French.[2] In this work, French provides criticism of the influential 17th century poet John Dryden’s work, claiming that the majority of praise Dryden receives is due to his political messages rather than the quality of his poetry, which French believes is mediocre. For example, French believes Dryden relies too heavily on excessive allusion to get his messages and themes across; French describes Dryden’s work and “his treatment of the body politic in the epic simile”.[2] French’s argument reveals the inherent difficulty of political poetry: the attempt to incorporate the literal (politics), can destroys the fanciful and imaginary qualities that make poetry what it is. ~ Wikipedia: Can Poetry be Political

I tend to agree, though mine, like A.L. French’s, is probably not a popular opinion. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that politics and poetry are mutually exclusive, only that it is exceptionally difficult to pull off (if the poet wants to write poetry for “all time” (or universal) rather than “of an age” (or local, as it were). Gorman’s poem The Hill We Climb is nothing if not a political poem. I suspect it won’t outlast Gorman’s celebrity. The poem’s euphuistic sparkle won’t be enough to buoy its generalized sloganeering. But getting back to Rijnivelt’s poem. It does sound more like a position paper than a poem. Although, to be fair, I suppose a position paper can also be a poem (a new genre?). Rijniveck wants to make it clear that although they have been re-columned in the great spreadsheet of identity politics as an old, privileged, white European, they still would like to be a member of the club:

...the point is to be able to put yourself

in another’s shoes, to see the sea of sorrow behind another
person’s eyes, the rampant wrath of all wraths, you
want to say that maybe you don’t understand everything,
that of course you don’t always hit the right chord, but that
you do feel it, yes, you feel it, even if the difference is a gap.

The poem is written in the second-person singular, which I’ve never been a fan of (understatement). It’s hard to know who Rijniveld is addressing. The risk with second-person singular, of course, is that Rijniveld comes off sounding precisely like the entitled white European they don’t want to be. The white European who assumes and presumes the privilege of speaking for the reader and listener: You feel this and You want to say that and I, Rijnivelt, will say it for You because I am a Poet and have the right to tell You what You think.

It’s not a good look.

More generously, one could read the poem as Rijnivelt addressing Rijnivelt in the second person, which is also odd but at least, even if it now sounds self-absorbed in a weird and disturbing way, doesn’t sound patronizing and presumptuous in all the wrong ways. I feel for Rijnivelt but I’m not sure that poetry as position paper, let alone written in the second-person singular, accomplishes what Rijnivelt thinks it will. But I don’t know. I do enjoy these moments when poetry matters even if, like a Nascar race, half the reward is in watching the cars crash and burn.

upinVermont | March 6 2021

6 responses

  1. I love the last line :)

    I’m working up the mental-material to reply to that last spate of great posts, but I’m on a bit of a dry spell right now. I’ve got a lot to say, but it only comes out at 1AM while I’m trying to sleep- Oh well.

    I hope everything is going well!! You know what? I’ve been simply trying to memorize poems whenever I can (just another pale attempt to emulate Borges), and I was wondering if you’ve got any memorized.



    • Maybe you need to switch to a new timezone. Your 1AM can be the new 7AM or 7PM depending on which direction you fly.

      Everything is going well. This pandemic has been, in once sense, a blessing. I completed a novel and now I’m finishing all the poems I’ve wanted to finish and write for the last ten years. I’ve decided to minimize the amount of carpentry I take on and transition to full time writing. There’s less and less life ahead for me, and I can’t waste it.

      I used to memorize poems, but they don’t stay memorized for long.

      I do have a sort of photographic memory though. I can visualize in a book where I read something, the shape of the paragraphs and layout of text. If there’s a quote from Shakespeare I’m looking for, give me the book where I first read it and I can usually locate it, just by quickly leafing through the pages, by the pattern of text on the pages.


  2. It occurs to me all poems are political to somebody, otherwise they wouldn’t be canceling out the stale pales like Shakespeare to canonize Maya Angelou and turning difference into a zero-sum game. So perhaps it behooves us to attend to politics as much as to poetry. Does Kipling deserve to be available only in samizdat?

    Btw, by definition as a nonbinary Rijniveld identifies as both a man and a woman—so a
    penectomy/orchiectomy is out of the question. And if his male identity is homosexual and his female identity heterosexual , confusion worse confounded (although with a little luck and the right cultural conditioning somewhere in all that dysphoria might also be a long-term affair with Britney Spears). Finally, in addition to all this torturous doublebind to deal with, he gets rejected as a “privileged” white. You have to feel sorry for him. And your advice would be?…


    • As a matter of interpretation, you’re right. Any poem can be interpreted in a political light, but that doesn’t mean the poem was written as a political poem. Poetry motivated by politics are generally only relevant so long as the politics motivating them are relevant. If a political poem survives the ages, it won’t be because of its stately defense of WHIG party politics but because the hypothetical poet wrote a hypothetical poem that transcended the local to offer something universal. And as far as I know, said hypothetical poem doesn’t exist (though the WHIG party was apparently full of poets).

      My only advice to Rigniveld would be to not feed the trolls. :)


  3. “To the Lord General Cromwell, May 1652,
    On the proposals of certain ministers at the Committee for
    Propagation of the Gospel

    Cromwell, our chief of men, who through a cloud
    Not of war only, but detractions rude,
    Guided by faith and matchless fortitude,
    To peace and truth thy glorious way hast plough’d,
    And on the neck of crowned Fortune proud
    Hast rear’d God’s trophies, and his work pursu’d,
    While Darwen stream with blood of Scots imbru’d,
    And Dunbar field, resounds thy praises loud,
    And Worcester’s laureate wreath; yet much remains
    To conquer still: peace hath her victories
    No less renown’d than war. New foes arise
    Threat’ning to bind our souls with secular chains:
    Help us to save free Conscience from the paw
    Of hireling wolves whose gospel is their maw.”

    Hey, some political poetry can be decent. :)


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