In 1906 Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, a novel concerning the abysmal treatment of immigrants in the emergent labor class. The book’s readers, however, were outraged by the graphic depiction of unregulated meatpacking. In response, the government—which had been dragging its feet despite being aware of the industry’s stomach-churning practices—established the Food and Drug Administration, confirming Shelley’s claim, made early in the previous century, that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Sinclair’s art had forced bureaucracy’s hand.
The NSA is monitoring Americans’ emails and phones, and the scheme’s whistleblower, Edward Snowden, is in a desperate search for asylum on a planet cowed by the United States. We mindlessly plug reams of personal information into a website that, according to its terms of service, owns this data, and which will eventually make it available to data brokers. President Obama recently signed HR 347 into law, a bill that, according to the ACLU,expands “the Secret Service’s authority to regulate protests in and around areas where persons under Secret Service protection are located,” and that “could be abused to interfere with lawful protest.” The hard-won Voting Rights Act of 1965 has recently been gutted. The value of American voices and lives has diminished in favor of paranoia, suspicion, and rabid capitalism.
I often struggle with how I might best use the privilege I possess as a middle-class poet. I’m afforded the platforms of professor and writer, platforms I don’t really utilize to effect change in the world. This might be due to a cultural indoctrination suggesting that poetry is a marginal practice, yet poets such as Adrienne Rich, Denise Levertov, Gary Snyder, Brenda Hillman, and, more recently, Mark Nowak, Shane McCrae, Jena Osman, and Craig Santos Perez have utilized their privilege and platform to uncover, expose, and counter accepted narratives about living in a declining empire in which our agency as citizens is shrinking. While the government watches us, more and more poets and writers are watching back, documenting the injustices that stain our present moment. We need more of that. I should be doing that.
I want to imagine myself as the Julianne Moore character in Children of Men (2006), a sleek revolutionary who takes a bullet for the cause. But the truth is I’m bookish, I’m nervous, and I hate confrontation. I must use the only tool I have, poetry, to participate in this struggle. Although that may sound like taking a feather to a gunfight, history has shown that artists can threaten, and even topple, tyrannies. Behind every book banning or burning is a text that has terrified the powers that be. A revolution has many moving parts, and art is one of the most fundamental because it provides a subjective entryway into what otherwise may remain too remote or abstract. It is of great urgency that we participate in this battle, not through Facebook re-posts, but through an active poetic engagement with our present political circumstances.
Kent Johnson’s chapbook Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz (2005) is a critique of both a government whose officials claim, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality” and of the liberal humanism that dogs the avant-garde set, the very group Johnson argues should be contributing to the protest against war. As Dale Smith points out in his review of the book, “Such a ‘revolt’ for Johnson is centered predominantly on how collective ideologies and national narratives shape artistic, moral, and social values.” Johnson asks, according to Smith, “that [artists] adapt their words and images to the particular requirements of social and political situations.” With Johnson’s exhortation as a lens, we might consider using documentation and vigilance as a mirror for our institutions. We should be writing not only about how it feels to be surveilled but also about our own surveillances into government. Urgency and immediacy should replace affect and fashion. Poetry should live past the fear of the political and the aesthetic quibbling that divides us.
In her new book, Apart (2012), Catherine Taylor considers the implications of post-apartheid South Africa. Using sources as far ranging as Gayatri Spivak, George Bush, Chris Marker, Frantz Fanon, police blotters, and newspaper articles, the book is a personal and political meditation on race as well as a theoretical consideration of the problematic evolution of a state. She writes:
Surely there is a place for testimony beyond its initial telling, its initial transcription? Maybe now, with so much wreckage piled behind us, events might be able to be ‘intelligible’ and also maintain what Feldman calls the ‘unassimilable shock of history.’ I’m hesitant to give up completely on the value of reportage’s legacy, to say that is inevitably ineffectual.
In Apart Taylor implicates herself through witness and her own reportage, but she also synthesizes the data that explain or describe post-apartheid South Africa. Her subjectivity makes the subject and its ephemeral contexts more “intelligible.” I’ve read some of WikiLeaks, but I want to read about someone else reading WikiLeaks, unpacking its implications, because an aesthetic lens enriches, transforms, and deepens a subject. Poets are scary, but we can be scarier. We need to watch them, record them, poeticize our watching and recording. We need to take their data from them, reshape it, deform it, defamiliarize it. We have to respond to government surveillance with our own forms of surveillance. We have to watch them back.
Photograph: John Brosz/flickr