Making Things Happen

Seeds of Fire: Contemporary Poetry from the
Other USA
edited by Jon Andersen
[17pp, 9.95, Smokestack Books]

Smokestack (in Middlesborough) makes these policy statements on its web site:

     Smokestack does not think 'difficulty' in poetry
     is a virtue or that poetry is a place in which to hide.

     Smokestack argues that if poetry does not belong
     to everyone it is not poetry.

You can work this out for yourselves, I doubt, once you start to take it apart, it bears examination by intelligent people.

And from a review of one of its books, it quotes this, 'In this collection, to adapt Auden's phrase, poetry makes something happen.' Hardly an adaptation of Auden, it contradicts him. And it's an odd thing to say. What does it mean that poems in this or that book 'make something happen'? Make what happen? How? Prove it.

In an interview with Andy Croft for the Morning Star
online (February 2008), Jon Andersen, editor of Seeds of Fire says this:

     I don't think we can or should expect every
     poem to be a call to the barricades, but, if a poet's
     whole oeuvre contains no whispers of race, class,
     struggle or war, then they're not living in the
     same world as the rest of us. Or maybe they think
     they're not.

For [USA poet Martin] Espada, the task of poets in the modern world is to reconcile language with meaning:

     People in the US are hungry for meaning, culturally,
     politically and spiritually.

     Poetry of the political imagination is a matter of
     both vision and language. Any progressive social
     change must be imagined first and that vision must
     find its most eloquent possible expression to move
     from vision to reality.

     Any oppressive social condition, before it can
     change, must be named and condemned in
     words that persuade by stirring the emotions
     and awakening the senses.

     The question is not whether poetry and politics
     can mix. That question is a luxury for those who
     can afford it. The question is how best to combine
     poetry and politics, craft and commitment, how to
     find the artistic imagination equal to the intensity
     of the experience and the quality of the ideas.

There is more subtlety here, but are poets in this book ahead of the game really, 'imagining first'? And who's listening (so that there is an effect)?

In his introduction to the book, Jon Andersen says, 'We must no longer abide the notion that poetry should limit itself to the creation of pleasant illusions or the exploration of isolated pain.'

Who is this 'we'? What might 'no longer abide' mean? Does he mean dictatorship by people who think his way? And where has he been, who has he been reading? And not reading?

The chimera of 'pleasant illusions or the exploration of isolated pain'  - as a description of all other poetry - isn't worth a response, while yet an open discussion of all of poetry's ways and means, its necessities, it's strangeness in our psyche, its music, how the process elates and humbles, demands and denies, connects and misses, should never be closed off, should it?

Nor is it historically or currently the case that whatever the non-obviously-political-poetry a person may write, this hasn't and doesn't put down a marker or speak for whatever the poet's political affiliation, solidarities or courage.

I could be on firm ground if I suggest poems of political protest, of social concern, of agit prop, have rarely transcended their moment. This isn't even a negation, the moment demands what the moment needs, but in terms of longer-term consequence for us as human puzzles, surely something besides is necessary to us. Anyway, it happens. I have myself written poems of the political or cultural moment, but it's not what I do best, it's not my necessity which isn't either 'pleasant illusions or the exploration of isolated pain'.
If risk bringing myself into this, it is not to defend my own work but to say we are a mixed bunch, we humans, we poets, and the capricious angel of 'poetry' isn't owned by any one or group of us.

Sadly, the way the book is set up by the publisher and editor ghetto-like in politics, does ill justice to the range of poems and to some in particular. And are readers to bring critical thought to the book or to love it wholesale because of its stated credentials?
Perhaps I should have begun this review by saying I am myself broadly a member of this club politically; it could be thought lately that Capitalist exploitation is falling apart, but it's not, it is being propped up to continue in the same old ways; so that what hurts in this book will hurt again, injustice, incidental and long-term brutality will be the order of the world's days.
Whether these poems or any poems 'make things happen' differently is something else. Perhaps some do. I have marked poems in this book that seem to me mere prose statements, others tell the story but are forgettable as poetry, some sing and get a hold on me, others spell out sanely and clearly, sharply as poems, how this or that was or is.

How involved in what they describe all the poets are, how near or far their experience and understanding, what it does for them to have made the poem, what it does for readers, whether the world is changed in any way, these are for me open questions.
And I recommend this book. It should make for make for significant reading and discussion, as one of the many possibilities poetry has in store for us. There are, for me, some memorable poems. To quote from one,  untypically complex, mid-way through, Tim Seibles' 'Night Flight', 'I spend a lot of darkness / trying not to give up/ on being human, listening / to the engines of powerful things / moving us around:.' The listening here, the not knowing, the wondering, there isn't so much of this in the book as to make me think it's all here, what matters.

And there is a wonderful poem by Doug Anderson, 'Bamboo Bridge', where a group of soldiers, himself it seems really there, one of them, come upon a naked young woman, who doesn't see them, then does.

     David Hart 2008