Most people define poetry as “pure self-expression”. I tend to raise an eyebrow not in judgment, but in wonder. Is poetry really as “pure”, “untouched” and as we think it is?
Our choices are political not because they align with a societal norm but because they are influenced by that norm. One’s choice is often a political one because it is a deliberate, calculated and careful decision that takes several factors into account. Does anybody write anything whatsoever that is completely devoid of their own self? Does the process of writing not weave into itself, in some unnoticed way or another, the one who is writing? The presence of the “self” may or may not be expressly felt in reading poetry but it cannot be denied, nevertheless.
Consider the following examples. Eminent Hindi lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi used the medium of poetry to prove the feudalistic and chauvinistic attitudes of society in his composition, “Jab bhee jee chahe nayee duniya basa lete hain log/ Ek chehre pe kayee chehrey laga lete hain log.” Addressing those who propagated hatred and communalism during the partition of India in 1947, he said, “Malik ne to insaan ko insaan banaya, Hum ne use Hindu ya musalmaan banaya.” Sahir Ludhianvi was in no way, a part of the freedom struggle. He did not once write for local and/or national parties fighting for freedom but wrote, instead, for Bollywood films produced much after 1945. The first quote mentioned above is not politically charged but it can be thought of as his will to express the pain of watching society around him changing for the worst. Those two lines of extremely powerful poetry are reflective of his context – a community that is being crushed to the ground by the greed and monstrosity of the powerful classes. It is interesting to note that Ludhianvi mostly wrote romantic numbers for popular Hindi films at the time. What then, drives him to write something so removed from his genre? Is it the dire need to reiterate the humanity of each individual and to tell the world that religion, caste and creed cannot and must not cloud our basic human compassion? Poetry is political without being political.
When one reads Shakespeare’s All The World’s A Stage or Gwendolyn Brooks’ We Real Cool, one often compares the context of the poet’s to one’s own. If they trace back Shakespeare’s famous poem to its very roots, has beautifully captured the condition of an everyday, socially-functioning human being at all the stages of his life. When I read Gwendolyn Brooks, I can see shreds of myself in her poetry and an African-American woman living in 19th century America’s celebration of her life, body and color. When I make my tiny, worthless attempts at writing a poem, the only thing I can and know how to write about is myself and I am an intensely political human being (although I know next to nothing about Trump) owing to the millions of intentional or unintentional choices I have made to lead me to this moment.
This piece only simplistically highlights the political nature of poetry. There are so many more interesting and deeply enlightening facets of the question of poetry being political. Here are some links to follow my overly simple explanation and deepen your understanding.
The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry: Race, Identity, and the Performance of Slam Poetry
Author: Anoushka Zaveri