As I’ve written here before, the relevance of poets these days is tough to figure out. At the very least, poets are obscured by more popular mediums of expression such as film, television, and whatever else endless internet browsing yields. Sure, readings still happen, books keep getting published, creative writing classes and MFAs get filled, and, inevitably, poetry keeps being read with varying levels of interest and engagement, but the golden years of verse are either behind us or ahead of us (but they sure aren’t now, in this humble blogger/poet’s opinion).
As recently as the 50’s and 60’s, poetry was a viable and visible form of activism. We had avant-gardes, beats, and Black Art’s all giving their two cents with a large audience. That’s not to say nobody writes this kind of work anymore, but it just doesn’t have the exposure it once had.
I chose to spotlight Kevin Heaton’s “The Electorate” just as much for the website it’s published on as the poem itself. The poem comes to us from Rattle, a pretty standard online literary magazine besides one little wrinkle: the Poet’s Respond series. Poet’s Respond is a project in which Rattle asks poets to submit a poem that’s a reaction to a news story that occurred in the last week. In Rattle’s words: “On average, poems in Rattle are published six months after they were submitted. Then they appear online six months after that. Real poetry is timeless, of course, so usually it doesn’t matter—but this is the age of information. News cycles rarely last more than a week, let alone a year. One reason poetry lags behind other forms of contemporary media might be this delay—how can poetry be part of the conversation when it enters so late? Moreover, poets do often respond to current events in real-time, so why make them wait for our print schedule?”
Well put, Rattle. I appreciate Rattle’s commitment to fighting the good fight of keeping poetry relevant.
Now, onto the poem. Here’s “The Electorate”:
Behold the fatted sheep, now shorn
fed on forbs and bulgur wheat
who sport a sullied, cloven fleece
led by rams down coffin planks:
abattoir-stunned, and gutted
Pretty biting stuff. The poem is a reaction to (you guessed it) the most recent election. Heaton uses short lines with gross, visceral imagery to great effect. In English we’re used to politics being compared to gross things. Otto von Bismarck said, “laws are like sausages, better to not see them made”, so we have a touch of familiarity there with butcher imagery here. Heaton turns the gross dial up significantly, however, with great skill. Something about the alliterative “butcher-boned” and “sweetened/salt preserved” gives those images more power, as if we can hear bone breaking and being pulled apart.
And while I don’t really know about the decision to publish the meaning of the poem, we’re provided with it at the end: “This poem was written to commemorate the midterm electing of a new set of same old Republicrats, and the resultant fleecing of an unwitting electorate.” While I don’t feel the reader has been spoiled with this description, it’s still a touch odd.
Regardless of that, I like what both Heaton and Rattle are trying to do: stay current, stay relevant, and write/publish good poetry. Maybe, just maybe, poetry can take some steps towards shedding the stereotype of being only for other poets and academics and reestablish itself as a potent force in the world of social commentary.