Exception Taken by Robert Bagg

David Orr, in the July/August issue of POETRY, expresses his skepticism that few poets in any age or language have written political poetry of either literary merit or practical effect. While he’s mostly concerned with the ineptitude of recent American poets, a large part of his argument is theoretical. He tries to explain why poets have never been much good at changing minds about large public issues. It’s certainly true that politically motivated poetry is not always great poetry. But often it is—and survives with its art and its force intact. Some political poetry that hasn’t aged well was nevertheless effective and stirring within the literary idiom of its own age.
Orr’s presumption is to assume, rather than document, poetry’s historical irrelevance to political awareness. For instance, he dismisses Shelley’s claims (made in “A Defense of Poetry”) that “the most unfailing herald, companion, or follower of the awakening of a great people to work a beneficial change in opinion or institution is poetry” and that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Does he not know that Shelley’s own poems, Queen Mab & “Ode to the West Wind,” were reprinted countless times by nineteenth-century working-class and radical-political movements, and that they influenced great Victorian parliamentary reforms? Or that Blake’s poem “The Chimney Sweeper” from Songs of Innocence was quoted frequently during the successful agitation to ban children from that deadly occupation, and his resounding poem “And Did Those Feet in Ancient Times” remains to this day the rallying song of Britain’s New Labour Party? Two Victorian narrative poems, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh and Tennyson’s The Princess, encouraged the eventually successful Women’s Suffrage movement. But Shelley’s assertion of poetry’s power, deeper and subtler than Orr’s reduction of it, calls attention to poetry’s pervasive power to stimulate the sympathies and moral discrimination that remain the sine qua non for positive social change.
Another error Orr makes is to assume that all American poetry is locked into a solipsistic lyric mode, “speaking to itself in meditative solitude.” He quotes with approval W. R. Johnson’s assertion: “The absence of a real audience and the failure of performance engender an anxiety, a kind of bad conscience, a sense of the poet’s irrelevance, impotence and unreality — a frustration of function that the printed page … can only intensify.” The culprit behind the American poet’s political impotence, deduces Orr, is our country’s elevation of individuality. To demonstrate the latter’s harmful effects on verse, Orr quotes several examples of poems with inept opening lines, chosen, he says, “at random.” And chosen, he might have added, from a pool of politically incidental or uninvested poets—accomplished poets in their self-created worlds, but more on the order of tourists or travel writers in the real one.
Instead of taking his own prejudice as gospel, Orr might have done more thorough, open-minded research and sought out poets whose aesthetic evolves from civic, rather than self-involved, bases. He found Robert Hass, who did not impress him, and Kay Ryan, who did. The poem by Ryan that Orr quotes is “Home to Roost,” about chickens turned loose and the inevitability of their ominous return—which although written prior to 9/11 seems to comment on the attack and the motives of the terrorists that caused it. When Ryan realized how its post 9/11 readers would interpret the poem she withdrew it from immediate publication. Orr leaves the implication that only such odd flukes gain a poem political traction.
Orr states in his concluding paragraph that “one of the problems of political poetry, then, is that like all speech, it exists at the mercy of time, history, and other people.” And so, need one add, does the sentence I’ve just quoted (which, caught in an oddly historical and cultural provincialism, writes off Dante, Milton, Blake, and such modern poets as Hikmet and Vallejo). He ends by saying: “A poet is always engaged in battle, though the opponents may be unclear, the stakes unknowable, and all the defeats felt far away, in different domains, by people other than himself.” By focusing on poets who are tailor-made for that characterization, oblivious of those who contradict it, Orr has composed an exact counterstatement to Shelley’s confidence that a great poet knows well enough who his enemies are and what he hopes to achieve. I invite the reader to judge which assessment—Orr’s or Shelley’s—more accurately reflects the actual practice of poets in our own and previous cultures.
Contrary to Orr’s assertion, there is powerful and aesthetically vibrant political poetry now being written in America. Orr could have found recent examples in three anthologies: We Begin Here: For Palestine and Lebanon (Interlink Books, 2007), a collection provoked by Israel’s 2006 invasion; For New Orleans (Bayeux Arts, 2007), a response to the Bush administration’s ongoing incompetence and neglect; and Jon Andersen’s explosive anthology Seeds of Fire (Smokestack Press, 2007). Adrienne Rich, a poet whom Orr has backed recently for a Nobel Prize, has included politically potent poems in her many books for most of her career.
Orr also neglects the political acumen unleashed by several of the mid-twentieth century’s major poets, including Robert Lowell in “For the Union Dead” (“A savage servility slides by on grease”), ee cummings in “I Sing of Olaf” (about a draft-resister) and Richard Wilbur, in the following “Miltonic Sonnet for Lyndon Johnson on His Refusal of Peter Hurd’s Official Portrait”:
Heir to the office of a man not dead
Who drew our declaration up, who planned
Range and Rotunda with his drawing-hand
And harbored Palestrina in his head,
Who would have wept to see small nations dread
The imposition of his cattle-brand,
With public truth at home mistold or banned,
And in whose term no army’s blood was shed,

Rightly you say the picture is too large
Which Peter Hurd by your appointment drew,
And justly call that Capitol too bright
Which signifies our people in your charge;
Wait, Sir, and see how time will render you,
Who talk of vision but are weak of sight.
But Orr’s most glaring lack of due diligence is to be unaware, it seems, of the work of James Scully, who has contributed to the three anthologies cited above (and to POETRY decades ago); his most recent books are Donatello’s Version (Curbstone, 2007) and Oceania (Azul Editions, 2008). Some readers will remember him from the early 1960s. His first book, The Marches, won the Lamont Prize. Howard Moss published a number of his poems, many while Scully was still a student, in The New Yorker. In 1976 Scully was an NBA judge for poetry. During a Guggenheim year (1973–74) in Chile, where he arrived weeks after the CIA-backed coup that brought a Pinochet-led military junta to power, Scully worked with the MIR (Movement of the Revolutionary Left) and wrote quietly hair-raising poems about the Chilean experience. He befriended many Chileans, including Isabel Letelier and, later, Orlando Letelier, who was assassinated by a car bomb on September 21, 1976, in Washington, D.C.

By the early 1980s Scully’s poems were no longer publishable in literary journals. What happened? Had he forgotten how to write poems? Or was he writing of “wrong things” from a wrong place in the world? In response to his exclusion, in 1988 he published Line Break, the best contemporary examination of how political poetry works on the page and in the real world. It’s a book Orr apparently has not heard of, but which pertinently addresses many of the issues his article raises, as well as those it avoids. Curbstone Press reissued Line Break, with an introduction by Adrienne Rich, in 2006.

Why Scully’s work became untouchable in the current cowed literary climate may be evident from four recent poems: “There Is No Truth to the Rumor,” “Qana,” and “The Angel of History” from Donatello’s Version, and “The Great Wave” from his chapbook Oceania. Both these brave books will hearten readers hungry for political poetry that possesses literary power and sophistication—readers who may have been puzzled by Orr’s denial that it exists.
A Scully poem does not rant or distort. It exposes. It creates a metaphoric and moral context intended to deepen our understanding of what’s happening in the world and, possibly, to situate and extend the range of our responses to it.
He takes on, for instance, George Bush’s widely reported, sneering remark that the Constitution is just a “goddamned piece of paper.” After correcting Bush’s factual error (“it’s not vegetable but animal / dressed as parchment”) Scully elaborates the history of parchment: “Ionian Greeks called sheets of it / diphtherai, or ‘skins.’” Following through on this metaphor, which is also a potent literalism, he notes the civilizations that went on
writing and rewriting
past traces of earlier writing
on recycled skins
they’d scrubbed and scoured

they wrote what they believed
on something meant to last . . .

“Skin” in this poem carries the weight of both Western civilization’s self-inflicted suffering and its success in creating and defending its laws, its sacred writings, and its literature. Parchment in fact behaves as skin does, so that any writing or painting melts it slightly, “creating a raised bed for the writing / like welts on a body / showing what’s been done to it … each writing [is] a rewriting / overwriting the life of skin …” So that even when it has lost “all sense of purpose” it still “buckles, shifts, sweats and squirms

uplifting a little,
like from a death bed,
giving lie to the rumor
the Constitution is a piece of paper
damned or not

because, even dead, it will let us know
this was a living matter
that was being painted up, written off on
chewed by dogs and lied over
In “Qana,” a poem about the sleep-murder of Lebanese women and children, in a basement shelter, by an Israeli “bunker buster” bomb in the Summer War of 2006, Scully transforms an event into prophecy, this time referencing the Bible and invoking Shakespeare.
where the wedding was
where water turned to wine
where the best was saved
for last

shsh they’re trying to sleep
in the dark wood
of dreamless dreaming—
coughing farting snoring sighing
turning over

where the wedding was
the rolling storm
that is not a storm
flies over

it doesn’t feel much
to drop a bomb—
a slight bump
under the wing

the thing is done—

their deaths
like little yapping dogs
rush out
into the nerve-endings of the universe

the bodies stay put
impossibly still

so it was said in school
Macbeth doth murder sleep—
with so much life to kill
there’s no room for sleep

in Qana
where the wedding was
those who sleep, die

the future of sleep
is buried alive

in Qana where the wedding was
the murdered in their sleep
wake just long enough to die
to become the woods
where the wedding was …

they are on the move now,
which is impossible

these impossible dead
growing out of their deaths
into an army of trees

The “miracle” Scully describes is no more wishful or fanciful than the trees advancing on Macbeth’s Dunsinane. Typically, his figures of speech are embedded in material realities. Hezbollah camouflaged their rocket launchers with moveable trees. After each firing these were moved to escape targeting by Israeli drones.
To convey the lasting import not just of 9/11 but of the manifest contradictions, suppressed facts, and scientific impossibilities invoked to sustain the 9/11 Commission’s official conspiracy theory—to bring home the more telling horror of it—Scully calls upon Hokusai’s woodblock print, “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa.” The looming disaster of Hokusai’s “Great Wave,” however, is not an analogue to 9/11 but an antidote to it.
we saw the world end
in a ball of fire

two balls of fire
& puffs of dust
outrunning gravity
blowing off
the laws of physics

2 planes took out 3 towers
it was a miracle it meant
anything can happen

in reality
it was the Middle Ages
mind-bending demons & wonders
mounting a comeback

the Enlightenment
was shockt it decayed
into too many words
with too little to say

brain waves heart rhythms
emanations of the flesh
mirrors of the soul
warped that day
their ashen darkness falling away
like the great wave of Hokusai,
the vast horde of its waters
storming up & over
the little fishermen
in their little boats

Mount Fuji shines
in distance
white & serene

… we woke
to fire & smoke
small bodies on TV
holding hands
walking out of windows

give up their ghosts
over & over
on TV after TV
spewing toxic dust
haunting down the day
of panicked faces, eyes
running half looking back
at the science fiction
choking their streets …

Hokusai’s fishermen cling
to the gunnels
of their slender boats

the Great Wave
the menace
& beauty of it
hanging over them

is as perfect & as still
in its blackness & blueness
as Fuji in the brilliance
of its canopy of snow

it is what it is

here nothing is

we have learned to read miracles
as the signs of a conspiracy

we have managed to live
with murder & torture
in the name of a homeland
we have never lived in

trapped in a web
of blood-&-soil
fear like a filthy sack
pulled down over our heads—

we will never now not see
human beings rendered
walking on air, as though
treading the heaviness of water
feeling for the bottom
for all to see
the dignity the immensity
of their death, & of their littleness

against the spectacle
of the New American Century
where the world we knew ended
—floor by screaming floor—
in the first murders of the terror war

“The Angel of History,” a response to Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Concept of History,” is Scully’s most Blakean poem. Its Angel, based on a painting by Paul Klee, is here like a giant figure from a prophetic book, moving at the speed of human breath and time through the cosmos, blown backwards into the future, away from a still collapsing Paradise, even as the debris of history keeps piling up at his feet. The angel wants to help, but the powerful blasts catching his wings prevent him from reaching back or down. In this treatment, unlike others, it is the angel who needs redeeming, a resolution that can only come from the build-up of broken humanity in his wake as it overwhelms and humanizes him, crushing his wings, which are a source not of freedom or power, but of his inability to make a move, to effect anything. Scully’s great metaphor raises and responds to the question of where that absent power resides. What is history but our own collective action?
“His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread.”
—Walter Benjamin
blown backwards
into the future

he beholds only
the past
dragging after him

what a catastrophe
the furious wind
hurls at his feet

helpless before it

his wings are spread—
fanned flat
with the sharp snap
of terrified sails

how will he fold them
feather on feather
before the torrent
of shock waves from paradise?

on his wretched wings
helpless to help
or anything

what he shouts
is spittle
torn from his mouth

himself, ever only
a single breath ahead
of where he has been

where even now

the surge of broken bodies
is breaking over him

filling his eyes, his mouth, his ears
with creaturely whispers

crushing with love the wings
that have caught him up
in so much misery

Scully has written scores of political poems that develop from powerful metaphors and associations, two of the most indelible being “Boxcars,” which traces what history has made of a central reality of the Holocaust, and “Anthology of Rapture,” which draws into a seamless montage many translated Japanese poems that emanate from, and honor, the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki who in their ordinary humanity were “disappeared.” What are they looking for / running to the summit of lost time?
If Orr wishes to continue to claim powerful political poetry can’t be written in our time, I invite him to respond to James Scully’s. It can’t be banned from our own anti-censorship samizdat, the Internet. Look for his latest poem, “White Phosphorus,” which makes indelible the civilian carnage caused by horrific new weapons the Israeli Defense Force used during its recent twenty-two-day invasion of Gaza.


Robert Bagg was born in New Jersey, attended Amherst, Harvard and the University of Connecticut, taught at the University of Washington (1963-65), and the University of Massachusetts (1965-95), where he served as Graduate Director (1982-86) and Department Chair (1986-92).

In addition to essays on Classical and English literature, he has published five books of poetry and translations of seven plays by Euripides and Sophocles. His first book, Madonna of the Cello, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. His Greek translations have been staged in 60 productions worldwide. He has held Prix de Rome, Guggenheim, Ingram Merrill, Rockefeller, NEA and NEH fellowships, the latter in 2007 for work on a critical biography of Richard Wilbur.

He lives in Western Massachsetts with his wife Mary, a free-lance writer and editor. His outdoor enthusiasms are horses and golf.