Can Poetry Make a Difference?

The past two COVID years, characterized by limited interactions and confinement to our homes, have only underscored the extent to which ours has become a culture of spectatorship. Unlike the dog in the meme (“This is fine”), many of us long to do something as our world burns down around us; but mostly we watch. Poets, workers in language alert to the shifts and guiles of public rhetoric (“the antennae of the race,” Pound called them), are often acutely aware of the inequities and horrors around them, and feel acutely the necessity for action. But whether one can take meaningful social or political action through poetry is another question. Somewhere between the extremes of Shelley’s poets as “the unacknowledged legislators of mankind” and W. H. Auden’s flat assertion that “poetry makes nothing happen,” contemporary politically committed poets have made a cottage industry of agonizing over the question of whether their Leftist bona fides, as manifested in their poetry, actually make any difference.

Rodrigo Toscano, one of our keenest and funniest Leftist poets, doesn’t need to prove his activist credentials: as a project director at the Labor Institute, he’s been working in the trenches of union organizing, occupational safety and health, and environmental issues for more than two decades. His latest searingly political book, The Charm & the Dread, combines nuts-and-bolts geopolitical analysis, calls to arms, ironic reflections on the place of political discourse (both poetic and otherwise) in North America, quiet and loud meditations on the COVID-19 experience, and a good deal of sheer fun.

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Perhaps it’s his day job of liberatory labor that allows Toscano to take such a questioning stance toward political poetry as a genre. As he writes in “Insurrectionary,”

The day to day existence of people
If that doesn’t change, then what is all this?
Passionate words, eloquent poetry
What’s the use of any of it today
If tomorrow and many days to come
Aren’t shaped differently, aren’t lived differently[?]

The page is a space where poets can wryly highlight the injustices that affect human lives, where they can urge us to reflection and action; but those linguistic interventions are always secondary to the concrete political labor of collecting data, of organizing, of trying to bend our present dystopia in more humane directions.

At times, the pieces of The Charm & the Dread are less political poems than poems about the possibility of political poetry. “Homo Americanus” is a bitterly hilarious send-up of the spectacle of literature conferences and the entire academic creative writing industry:

But here we are, herding piss-poor students
Into the bare halls of Career Poet.
There’s exactly five things a prize can do:
One: it bestoweth wings to wingless works
Two: it stauncheth today’s systemic wounds
Three: perchance it payeth the rent—golly
Four: it groweth wings on the fugitive
Five: it clipeth the fugitive’s new wings

Still, in the insterstices of this ego-driven industry, there’s the possibility of imagining new modes of living:

Old Universalisms pen us in
Where we mean to run with a New Story.
New Stories, reject Catastrophizing
Refuse a foregone Tragicomedy
Stage an Alternative Futurity

In “Jump-Start Poems,” Toscano wonders whether poems that take no explicit political stance, that attempt to deal with the “deep” questions of existence, are even “worth it”:

I mean, poems, meant to get at existential being itself
For a moment (brief moment) stripped of social causality
Not having to take a publicly recognizable position
Not having to, you know, massage an affiliation
But instead, riffing on what’s elementally human
What’s fundamentally common between folks

“I wonder if jump-start poems are a cop-out / Or a necessary moment (brief moment) against cop out,” Toscano writes, and then finds himself wondering whether “jump-start poems” actually exist:

And if they do exist, whether they wonder themselves
About poems that wonder about not wondering
Fending off the hounds of lassitude, indolence, and surrender
Just long enough for a jump-poem to start it all 

The poem ends by tying itself in a perfect knot of paradox, leaving the reader unsure whether the “jump-start poem” is being cherished or anathematized.

The following poem, “Compulsory Conviction,” is far more pointed:

Many these days demand a show of faith
Oblations on the altar of justice
Rounding up neophytes, exhaling charms
Cooked up by professional spell casters.

In “these days” of precarity and crisis, there are “many” in the poetic community insisting that poets must harness their muses to the work of liberation, make their social and political commitments clear in their poetry. But that insistence overlooks the more subtle manner in which poetry sometimes works:

There’s others though that need a space to think
Step back and stoke the embers of feeling
Matching sense to thinking, cell by cell
Tender shoots of enlightenment spring free.

These latter poets, not interested in their comrades’ “shows of faith,” are doing the quiet labor of humanizing the imagination to overcome the constraints of inherited ideas: “When strengthening shoots harden into trunks / Roots twist into action, upturn church walls.”

The Charm & the Dread isn’t all overtly political, or even meta-political poetry. A number of its poems explore how the the events of the past years have fundamentally altered our ways of sensing and being in the world. The title poem, subtitled “A Meditation in the Time of COVID,” is an alternately hair-raising and calming chant: 

The charm of a medivac helicopter.
The dread of a failed meditation.
The charm of another ambulance.
The dread of a failed meditation.

Toscano’s poems can be elated, despondent, theoretically sophisticated, or savagely critical, but they’re never poker-faced. The Charm & the Dread is consistently, often wildly, funny; in its range of wry observation, shrewd satire, and outright obscenity, it reminds me of nothing so much as the work of the great 18th-century satirists Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift — though without the misogyny, class bias, and mean-spiritedness. I read “Converse” (subtitled “A Revolutionary Program for Total Change”), a rare quiet and thoughtful poem, as something like Toscano’s ars poetica:

To say something
then something else

To be still, waiting
to comprehend

To help out
being helped by others

To make stuff
in tandem

To rip asunder
the making

To point very far
feeling it close

To pull the screen up
and laugh

This is a poetry that seeks to make sense of a seemingly senseless world, “to comprehend”; that prizes human connection, structures of mutuality — “To help out/ being helped by others”; and that aims ultimately to set aside the screens of deception that keep us oppressed: to dissipate them in the universal solvent of generous, self-deprecatory laughter.

The Charm & the Dread by Rodrigo Toscano is published by Fence Books and is available online and in bookstores.


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