Khurshid Alam’s Investigative Poetry—An Interpretation on Subject, Treatment, and Technique

a window
on the real data, not a separate copy
of that data.
— J.H. Prynne, Poems.

Investigative Poetry

Investigative poetry is history in verse with investigative tinge and so it can also be called history poesy. Investigative poetry, to be recognized as a separate genre, requires much critical work into the making of the canon and creation of the works of the best crafts. Though Charles Olson and Edward Sanders have done worthy works towards creation of the crafts and standardization of the convention, it requires waddling yet deeper. Olson and Sanders believe that the trend is old one but because of governments’ tyranny from time to time the poets who were exploring had to backtrack or disguised their identity or presented their writings in codes so they are not explicit. In support of this opinion Sanders provides a series of the cases against the poets carried out by the political parties, governments, police and other agencies in his valuable book Investigative Poetry: The Content of History Will Be Poetry (1976, Blake Route Press).

History of investigative poetry is old one that began, Sanders traces, since William Blake’s The Songs of Innocence and Experience1 and has been well practiced by many other poets since such as P. B. Shelly, King George, William Pitt et al.2 ‘It is therefore my belief that virtually every major poet’s work in France and America for the past 100 years has prepared the civilization for the rebirth of history poesy.’3

Investigative poetry explores the reality of the conscious mind working behind the truth of the “representative history”. It is different from investigative journalism in the way that it is simply not limited to exploring a truth but shaking a man to the bone. In investigative journalism the primary purpose is to detect a truth in as simple ways as possible. While investigative poetry explores the truth with a mix of literary approach so it can reach to the majority and can make the people believe it.


What makes investigative poetry a separate genre is its approach: subject used for composing the investigative poetry, the treatment the poet uses in writing this genre, and the techniques.

History should be the rib of investigative poetry. But we have wider choice of picking up the historical records. One from the past; and second from the contemporary period. Past history has the potential to be the frame of the investigative poetry; but it lacks validity in some cases than others. Past history suffers from a chronic dispute that it is a “representative history” in many cases that a political government wants to have as such. And an investigation into the fact of the representative history or the past history can be alleged to be merely speculative which may attract arguments both in favor of it and against. Such speculation can lead to a wider platform of agreement and disagreement in the public domain and may meet a futile end. For there are people who may stand in support of the records of the representative history against those who suspect another sort of reality or who raise doubt to the representative history. Investigative treatment therefore can be accused to be biased as the data against a past historical record can be gathered only from sources that may be or may not be valid.

Contemporary history is a more fertile field as the facts behind a record can be under scanner of one and all in the present age. Even if there are disputes, investigation can be directed to a more unbiased treatment. For even the investigation can be under scanner and the present age can support with more acceptable approvals. Therefore, the content of contemporary history should be preferred for the content of investigative poetry.

In investigative poetry, investigative treatment should always be prominent. However mere “description of historical reality”4 is not enough in itself. For investigative poetry in that way would be nothing more than the representative history in verse, which derides of the very reason of investigation. Why yet another description of history at all! Investigation should bring out a new truth of the historical records so that the people are turned to think twice on the records as they come up and speculate themselves.

Investigative poetry should bring out a new truth altogether or should highlight the underlying feelings that the people may already be feeling but they do not find words to express or they do not have any clue to or are too busy in their life to raise their browse. The poets then should play the role of giving voice to the people and shake them to the bone.

Investigation does never mean always going against a record rather it is about delving deeper into the records and finding out the ulterior motives that might have led to that history. It is about investigating a possible hidden agenda behind the historical record.

Impartiality in the treatment of investigative poetry is one of the important factors. Investigative poetry should be free of all “-isms”. ‘Investigative poesy is freed from capitalism, churchism, and other totalitarianisms…’5 Though it is a challenging task as while investigating, the poet may take supports of some records. These supports may themselves be a part of some “ism”. Here the responsibility of a poet must be to jerk off all the belongings or at least the poet’s effort should be not to take the side of any “ism”. ‘Bards (should) “make reality,” or, really, they “make freedom” or they create new modes of what we might term Eleutherarchy, or the dance of freedom.’ 6

Impartiality may lead to discovering the truth. The poet, in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, should play the role of “the Knower, the Doer, and the Sayer” which strives ‘for the love of truth, for the love of good, and for the love of beauty.’

Data proofing: The use of data is at the prime in investigative poetry. Investigative poetry should be stuffed with data upon data to validate the perception. Little should be left to the individual interpretation so that the readers do not find data too hard to believe. Essentially ‘Relentless pursuit of data’7 should be directed to ‘know the new facts early.’ (Olson, Charles. The Human Universe and Other Essays, p 134). The data should include, though not be limited to, photos, tape recordings, videotapes, microfilms etc. Flow-charts, graphics, indexing, and citing instances should be taken wide use of.

Use of Date, Time, Place: Investigative poetry must always use date, time, and place and people involved while describing history or filling ‘the area of darkness’ in history. This is important to validate the facts. Now is the era when the poets should not resort to using symbols for writing on history (as William Wordsworth had to). We live in a free time guaranteed by the constitution, thanks to the democratic rules of the land; and even if we risk our life we must yet give a try. Risking is worthier than submitting. That was the purpose of Socrates when he preferred to take poison but refused to submit and backtrack from his findings. Thanks to the first martyr for truth in the recorded history.

Meter: Any meter can be acceptable but free verse is best suitable given the uncertain themes and subjects of the investigative poetry. It can be best described in the words of Charles Olson as Projective Verse, a verse form written in the open or COMPOSITION BY FIELD that is controlled by the union of breathing and listening of the poets. A verse form that comes from the heart and goes straight to the ear suiting the themes and subjects of the investigative poetry; and is not necessarily composed around the meters. It conveys the meaning and purpose of the verse spontaneously. A verse that can be engaged in whenever and wherever the poet is.

One of the best examples of an investigative poem is by Edward Sanders; however every poem should not necessarily have all the elements of investigative poetry:

About 1789
William Blake move to small house
on south side of Thames

got cooking there
on Prophetic Books

decided through visits and advice of the
received ghosts of his brother Robert

to design in reverse relief on etched
copper plates, both poem and design —

and then to adorn the printed-
poem with individual paintings

thank you, o ghost.

Hand-help press
Hand-etched copper plates
Hand-pigmented poem-glyphs
The Hand! The Hand!

And as he fashioned and painted more and more of his
He moved