How to Write a Good Political Poem

Most political poetry is not good. But can it ever be? Yes!

Is there a place in this world for political poetry? The question has always been a vexed one—and over the years, several poets and writers have answered with a firm no. Take Joseph Brodsky, the poet laureate of the United States from 1991 to 1992, who famously said that “the only things which poetry and politics have in common are the letters P and O.” Or consider Vladimir Nabokov, who was a prolific and heartfelt poet as well as a novelist. He went further than Brodsky, saying in a 1964 interview that “A work of art has no importance whatever to society”—that poetry and prose alike are “only important to the individual, and only the individual reader is important to me.” British-American poet W.H. Auden took a slightly different tack, writing that “poetry makes nothing happen” in his elegy for W.B. Yeats—a statement of profound pessimism about a poet’s ability to effect any real change in the world. 

In some ways, it’s understandable why those poets came to the conclusions they did. Brodsky and Nabokov were both scarred, in various ways, by the experience of being exiled from their homes in Russia, where dictators and commissars insisted that literature had to be political at all times. Beyond that, though, it’s an unavoidable fact that a lot of poetry which tries to address political topics is just unreadable hackwork. In theory, there’s no reason why this should be true. Politics should be just another subject, like the moon or a Grecian urn, which can inspire good or bad poetry in equal measure. But somehow, political events and figures seem to bring out the worst in would-be poets. In practice, hearing someone loudly announce “I’m going to write a poem about Donald Trump!” causes one an involuntary wince, whereas “I’m going to write a poem about the moon!” might not. 

In fact, we live in something of a golden age for the Bad Political Poem. The example of someone enthusiastically sitting down to write page after page of terrible Trump-themed poetry is, unfortunately, not hypothetical. Such poems actually exist, and what’s worse, they get published. In 2019, the character actor John Lithgow decided to inflict a book of political poetry on the world entitled Dumpty: The Age of Trump in Verse. This, according to the publisher’s description, is a “satirical poetry collection” which is “bound to bring joy to poetry lovers,” particularly if they take a dim view of the former president. Like many anti-Trump books, it became a New York Times bestseller, but “joy-inducing” is not exactly how I’d describe its contents. One sample of Lithgow’s verse goes like this (brace yourself):

Trumpty Dumpty wanted a wall

To stir up a rabid political brawl

His Republican rivals, both feckless and stodgy

Succumbed in the end to his rank demagogy. 

Wow, that’s bad! I feel vaguely guilty even showing it to you—like someone who notices expired milk in the fridge and waves it around the kitchen, bellowing “Hey, smell this!” But it’s important to understand why it’s bad and what that means for the broader question of the political poem. The thing about Dumpty—and, God help us, its two sequel books—is that the politics themselves aren’t the problem. The poems aren’t wrong about what they’re saying. Donald Trump actually is a noxious demagogue, and his border wall is stupid and cruel. Expressing those thoughts in a witty, rhyming format should be a perfectly reasonable thing to do. The problem is that the politics in Dumpty come first and foremost, with the poetry itself a distant afterthought. On a technical level, Lithgow’s use of rhyme and meter, his choice of words, and his sense of humor are simplistic, childish, and grating. It’s vaguely sympathetic dreck, and presumably he means well by it, but it’s dreck nonetheless.

Another prominent poet has the opposite problem, pairing prodigious raw talent with a tepid, lifeless politics. I refer, of course, to Amanda Gorman. In the press—and in the liberal press most of all—we’ve been told over and over that Gorman’s political poems are amazing. The New Yorker describes her work as a “stunning vision of democracy,” while Time says that her “tightrope-taut verse” provides “clear-eyed hope to a weary nation.” (That last quote comes from Time guest writer Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose work Gorman says she referenced in her poetry.) And to be fair, some of Gorman’s poems—especially the deeper cuts from her 2021 collection, Call Us What We Carry—are quite good. The problem is that her talents have been devoted to the project of business-friendly Democratic Party liberalism, and to Joe Biden in particular. The only poem most people have heard from Gorman is “The Hill We Climb,” which was tailor-made to be delivered at Biden’s inauguration:

Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed

a nation that isn’t broken

but simply unfinished

We the successors of a country and a time

Where a skinny Black girl

descended from slaves and raised by a single mother

can dream of becoming president

only to find herself reciting for one

These are platitudes, and bad ones. “The Hill We Climb” expresses two basic themes: that January 6 was scary (“We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation / rather than share it”) and that things are going to be better now that Joe Biden is president (“This is the era of just redemption.… We will rebuild, reconcile and recover.”). Embedded within the verses is the assumption, quintessentially liberal, that there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the United States or its hierarchies of wealth and power. The country “isn’t broken.” It doesn’t need to be radically changed, just fixed up around the edges, and our old pal Joe’s the man for the job. The whole thing was pretty questionable on the day—how do you proudly declare yourself “descended from slaves” while reciting a poem for a former segregationist?—but it’s only gotten worse with age. Since Biden’s inauguration, the “era of just redemption” has turned out to include skyrocketing housing costs and homelessness, more deportations and fossil-fuel drilling than under Trump, and a genocide in Palestine which the United States continues to actively support. If we’re climbing a hill, it’s made of corpses. 

The frustrating thing is that Gorman is clearly capable of great poetry. Even her Biden poem contains striking imagery and phrases, despite its topic. If she wanted to, she could genuinely be a generational artist, capturing all the struggle and horror of life as a young person in the 2020s. But there’s no money or fame in that. Instead, Gorman chooses to churn out flattering fluff for the rich and powerful. Biden was just the start; these days, her subject matter includes Oprah’s 70th birthday, which is apparently “Proof that even from embers a woman can build an empire,” and she’s become a “brand ambassador” for Estée Lauder. It’s a shame, and a waste.

There are even more wretched political poems out there, though. Some people embody the worst of both worlds, combining heinous political views with a truly abyssal lack of talent. Many of these people can be found in the Society of Classical Poets, a nonprofit group that aims to “support poets who apply classical techniques in modern poetry.” In practice, what this means is to publish and promote poetry with politically conservative themes, regardless of its actual quality. One of the Society’s most notable poets is a guy called Joseph Charles MacKenzie, who could charitably be called an anti-Gorman. In 2017 he wrote an unintentionally hilarious poem celebrating Donald Trump’s inauguration. Among other memorable lines, it called Barack Obama a “tyrant” and referred to immigrants as “a murderous horde, for whom hell is the norm.” (This was rhymed with “our nation deform.”) The Society also hates Karl Marx, devoting multiple poems to hurling schoolyard insults at him: 

If humans ran a Human Race,

Karl Marx would not be in it.

The human depth that he could trace

would leach out in a minute.

The most notable thing about this group, though, is its resistance to any innovation in poetic form that has taken place since 1850 or so. Practically every poem on the Society’s website reads like Alexander Pope could have written it (if you hit him over the head first), and in one long, ranting essay, frequent contributor Phillip Whidden condemns modernism as “the Murder of the People’s Poetry and Art.” For the history buffs at home, this is the same logic that caused the Nazis to brand the works of Picasso and other modern artists as “degenerate art” in the early 20th century. Its goal is to freeze human creativity in time and insist that any change from the supposed classics is a bad thing—just as, implicitly, any change from the established structures of power and wealth must be. The two kinds of conservatism go hand in hand.

From these examples, we can create a taxonomy of the Bad Political Poem, with three broad categories. In one group, there are the poems with more or less sympathetic politics, but terrible aesthetics (as seen in Dumpty). In another, there are the well-crafted poems that express a morally bankrupt politics (like “The Hill We Climb”). And in a third, there are the poems where everything sucks (looking at you, Society of Classical Poets). But what would it mean to create a political poem that’s actually good? Is such a thing even possible? 

A new book makes a strong case that it is. In Poetry for the Many, Jeremy Corbyn—the much-slandered humanitarian and former leader of the British Labour Party—resurrects a neglected tradition, compiling dozens of poems from around the world that are both politically radical and artistically compelling. He’s joined by co-editor Len McCluskey, a lifelong trade unionist and an influential figure in British politics in his own right. At 198 pages, their book is fairly short, but it serves as an important antidote to the elitism that often surrounds poetry as an art form, encouraging the reader “to embrace poetry and shake off any notion that it is not something to be read, written, or appreciated by working-class people.” At a time when Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his Conservative government are trying to eliminate literature and other humanities degrees from British universities on the grounds that they’re not “practical” for young people seeking a job, Poetry for the Many stands in opposition to that entire way of thinking. Its authors insist that poetry is not only a shared cultural heritage that belongs to everyone, but a vital tool for political liberation. At one point, introducing a poem by the Palestinian writer Mahmoud Darwish, Corbyn calls poetry “the way people under occupation and oppression can best express themselves,” forming a “vehicle for oral history” and for “messages of resistance and hope.”

As the book reveals, the “oral history” radical poetry represents is one of immense depth and richness. It runs all the way back to 1381 and the Peasants’ Revolt in England, when the priest and revolutionary leader John Ball wrote a couplet condemning the whole concept of class distinctions as unnatural and inhuman:

When Adam delved and Eve span, 

Who then was the gentleman?

Ball was executed by King Richard II for saying things like that, but more than 600 years later, his words live on. Later, during the early 1800s, Percy Bysshe Shelley echoed them with a few couplets of his own:

Men of England, wherefore plough

For the Lords who lay ye low?

Wherefore weave with toil and care

The rich robes your tyrants wear?

It’s also Shelley who gives Corbyn and McCluskey’s book its title, writing in his long poem “The Masque of Anarchy” that the workers of England should:

Rise like lions after slumber

In unvanquishable number

Shake your chains to earth like dew

Which in sleep had fall’n on you

Ye are many—they are few. 

As Michael Demson writes in his 2013 book Masks of Anarchy, those lines have been an inspiration to working-class radicals ever since they were written—including to Pauline Newman, the New York labor organizer who was christened “the New Joan of Arc” for her leadership of more than 400 women in a 1907 rent strike. As head of the British Labour Party, Corbyn himself frequently recited the “ye are many, they are few” line at his rallies, to roaring approval from crowds of thousands—a prime example of poetry’s power to stir and mobilize people politically. 

One other name stands out from Poetry for the Many: that of the Romantic poet and political firebrand William Blake. For anyone who went through an English class in the U.K. or United States, Blake is known primarily for his “Tyger Tyger burning bright / in the forests of the night,” one of the most anthologized poems in the English language. But his work is a lot more extensive, and politically provocative, than that poem alone suggests. Born in 1757, Blake was a fierce opponent of the English monarchy and the Anglican church, at a time when they were intertwined and all-powerful. In poem after poem, he railed against poverty and economic injustice, blasting the ruling class for forcing poor children to go hungry in “Holy Thursday”:

Is this a holy thing to see, 

In a rich and fruitful land,

Babes reduc’d to misery,

Fed with cold and usurous hand?

And excoriating the twin evils of child labor and militarism in “London”:

How the Chimney-sweeper’s cry

Every blackning Church appalls, 

And the hapless Soldier’s sigh

Runs in blood down Palace walls

Blake appears twice in Poetry for the Many, once with his 1810 poem “Jerusalem” and once with a lesser-known poem called “The Schoolboy,” but there are dozens of others that could just as easily have made the cut. Even more than Shelley, his political poems have lost none of their urgency and vitality over the course of the last 200 years. 

Inevitably, I have a few quibbles with Corbyn and McCluskey’s choices. For instance, they include the great Langston Hughes in the book but print his poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”—which has been widely anthologized—and not his more explicitly socialist work, like “Good Morning Revolution” or “One More ‘S’ in the U.S.A.” which are seldom printed anywhere. That’s an opportunity missed. It’s also a bit weird to print Adrian Mitchell’s elegy for the martyred Chilean folk singer Victor Jara, “His Hands Were Gentle,” and not any of Jara’s own poems, like his heartbreaking “Estadio Chile.” Meanwhile some absolute titans of politics and poetry, like Assata Shakur, don’t even get a mention. There are any number of possible reasons for these things, including the difficulty of getting permissions from poets’ publishers and estates, and I still think this is a good book. But with a few minor tweaks and additions, it could have been a fantastic one. 

My biggest disappointment with Poetry for the Many, though, is how backward-looking it is. Having given us an excellent primer on the history of radical poems, it doesn’t convey much of a sense that people are still writing them today. In fact, one of the only contemporary poems in the book is one Corbyn wrote himself about his visit to a refugee camp, called “Calais in Winter.” It’s surprisingly subtle and affecting, considering that Corbyn isn’t a poet by training—but there’s an entire movement of young writers working in this field today who are turning out sharp, incisive political poetry and not getting anywhere near the attention they deserve for it. It may be understandable that Corbyn and McCluskey seem to be unaware of them, since both men come from a pre-internet generation. Today, many of the best new poems circulate exclusively online, or in small independent magazines (like Prolit and Protean) which you can only find out about online. But I’ve been watching the rise of this new wave with great interest, and have even tried to serve as something of a spokesperson for it, reviewing a few of its most important texts for the Cleveland Review of Books. What follows is a brief—and by no means complete—overview of radical political poetry as it stands today.

First, there are the poets we might call the Rust Belt Proletarians: Joe Hall and Brendan Joyce. The former lives and works in Buffalo, New York, and the latter in Cleveland—not cities most people would associate with poetry or with literature of any kind. Both Hall and Joyce are focused intensively on the poetry of place, breaking with the narcissistically Brooklyn and Manhattan-obsessed literary world to chronicle the lives of people who are still working and struggling to get by in the United States’ decaying, neglected ex-industrial cities. In this, they echo an older generation of proletarian poets—most notably Carl Sandburg, the bard of Chicago’s industrial working class in the 1910s. For his part, Joyce has worked as a waiter, busboy, and line cook in Cleveland’s various restaurants—unfortunately, poetry doesn’t always pay the bills—and captured the experience in poems like the marvelously sarcastic “Nobody Wants to Work”: 

I watch the flour and sugar and mushrooms and beef tips
and bread crumbs go, swirling in the three sink. I put the
degreaser in the mop bucket. I slather a slick layer over
the kitchen floor. I follow with a deck brush until the
food stuff scrapes off. I follow with a dry mop to buff
it shiny. When I get in my car I realize my tire’s half flat.
I roll the dice. I stop at the grocery store, half a catered
Christmas sprayed across my clothes. I check out.
On my receipt it says I have 25 cents left in food stamps.

To me, this is a perfect political poem, both stylish and evocative. It captures all the crises of labor, wealth, class, and power that we’re currently living with in the United States in a deeply human way that no economic report or newspaper article ever could. Hall takes a different approach, going fully Surrealist with a poem about Tim Howard, the notorious Erie County sheriff who had 32 suspicious deaths in jails under his watch:

Tim Howard arrests Tim Howard for murder

and spends the night looking the other way

as Tim Howard knocks Tim Howard’s head against

the hardness of the Erie County holding center

whispering murderer, murderer, murderer.

This is just haunting. Not a word is wasted. In other poems, Hall writes songs of praise to garbage collectors, bookshop clerks, marijuana growers, and every other member of Buffalo’s working class he can think of, along with meditations on the city’s public transit system. Sometimes he slips a little too far into stream-of-consciousness and free association between words to be easily intelligible, but then again, that’s a deliberate style choice. Altogether it’s a remarkable poetic project, unlike anything else in literature today. 

Another important current is the poetry of Palestinian liberation, which has been flourishing—despite everything—in both the diaspora and Palestine itself. Corbyn and McCluskey touch on this movement with their inclusion of Mahmoud Darwish, but he died in 2008, and a lot has happened since then. On the Palestinian American side, the last few years have seen the rise of Noor Hindi, whose poem “Fuck Your Lecture on Craft, My People are Dying” went viral online in 2020:

Colonizers write about flowers.

I tell you about children throwing rocks at Israeli tanks

seconds before becoming daisies.

I want to be like those poets who care about the moon.

Palestinians don’t see the moon from jail cells and prisons.

It’s so beautiful, the moon.

They’re so beautiful, the flowers.

What’s remarkable about this, beyond the tragic beauty of the poem itself, is that Hindi is directly rebuking the ideas of people like Nabokov and Brodsky. They’re the “poets who care about the moon” and think poetry should stay disconnected from politics. That attitude, Hindi implicitly says, is a luxury for those who can afford it, those whose lives aren’t directly impacted (and ended) by the political events around them. 

illustration by nick sirotich

Hindi also pays tribute to the icons of Palestinian literature who came before her, saying that “your canon ain’t shit // compared to Ghassan Kanafani”—the novelist who was assassinated by the Mossad in 1972—in the wickedly funny “Self-Portrait as Arab/Muslim Teenager in an All-White High School.” In a time when the Israeli military and its accomplices in the U.S. are trying to eradicate Palestinians and their culture from human memory, that alone is an act of resistance. And in Gaza and the West Bank, a new generation of poets persists. The most famous, of course, is Refaat Alareer, who was murdered by an Israeli bomb in December 2023, and whose poem “If I Must Die” has rapidly become one of the most read and translated of the 21st century. But there’s also Mosab Abu Toha—one of Alareer’s friends and colleagues—who wrote the extraordinary Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear: Poems from Gaza, and Khaled Juma, whose poem “Oh Rascal Children of Gaza” has also become popular online since October 2023. At the time of writing, both of them are still alive—if not necessarily well—and still writing. May it stay that way!

Meanwhile in the United States, young, working-class Black poets have been writing with a new intensity about issues of racial injustice, especially in the wake of the nationwide uprisings after George Floyd’s murder in 2020. Here, one of the standout figures is Darius Simpson, whose 2023 collection Never Catch Me is full of stanzas like this one from “Etymology of ‘Fuck 12’”:

once i tried talking a killer, i have the handcuff scars to prove it

in a matter of seconds i’ve seen improbable cause devour innocence

your prejudicial bloodlust is off its leash chewing on my sister again

your great great granddaddy was a double barrel shotgun

you sound just like him.

Kyle Carrero Lopez, another poet from this nascent movement, has a more complex relation to race, writing as an Afro-Cuban artist in New Jersey—but his uncompromising enmity to the police echoes Simpson’s. In October 2020—just a few months after George Floyd’s death—he published “After Abolition,” writing:

Prisons and cops survive only in tales for the young

like twin Atlantises or two drowned boogeymen.

A cop’s as harmless a Halloween getup as any

monster, while a prisoner costume’s as taboo as a slave one

now that schools teach what makes them kin.

Together, these two poems represent two sides of a coin. One depicts the horror of the present, while the other dares to hope for an entirely different future. Simpson and Lopez are very much heirs to the great Black radical poets like Amiri Baraka or (to invoke her name again) Assata Shakur—but at the same time, also entirely new and different, and worth following as their art continues to evolve. 

Finally, another political poet who should be better-known is W.D. Ehrhart, the Vietnam War veteran who’s spent decades warning against U.S. militarism, nationalism, and war in general. I’ll declare up-front that I’m biased toward Bill’s poems since he’s a friend of Current Affairs and a semi-frequent contributor. So I won’t be too effusive; I suspect he’d hate anything that smells like flattery anyway. But let’s just say there’s a reason he’s the only person (so far) to have poems published in this magazine.

Despite their brilliance in other areas, Brodsky, Nabokov, and Auden were wrong about political poetry. Dead wrong. Not only is it possible to write a good political poem, but people have been doing it for centuries. It’s just that it’s difficult to do, and the sheer volume of awful poems often drowns out the good ones. But at its best, a political poem is a powerful thing. It can open hearts, expand minds, and inspire human empathy like nothing else. If you think you can write one, go for it. Just make sure you have the patience, and the technique, to make it work. Be sure that your words won’t just serve the soulless commercial interest of a publishing company, or flatter the ego of some politician or millionaire. And if you find yourself rhyming “stodgy” with “demagogy,” close the document and walk away.  

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