Political Agendas & Poetry

In class, Professor Smith briefly commented on the passing of the poet Adrienne Rich, noting how she was particularly adept at blending poetic discourse with political dialogue. Rich seems to be a straightforward example of how a poet incorporating politics into her poetry. But it seems that there is another trend that is often at play that affects whether or not a poet or poem becomes mainstream—the politics that the readership impute into the poem.

For instance, for a good portion of the 1800s and 1900s, Alexander Pope was the gold standard of poetry who occupied a central role in the discourse of any budding English scholar. An analysis of “The Rape of the Lock” was a basic “Introduction to English Poetry 101” element of any university curriculum for a large portion of the past three hundred years. However, that has slowly started to change over the past five to six decades, as many English scholars began to accuse Pope’s works of promoting sexism, as well as the inferior intelligence of women in comparison to men. Since most feminist interpretations of Pope’s work endorse the viewpoint of his sexism, Pope has gradually begun to recede from English curricula across the country due to his perceived sexism.

Of course, this plays out in the other direction as well. When William Wordsworth put out Lyrical Ballads, he chose to place Samuel Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” first in the original edition. Because most readers at the time were looking for straightforward language that depicted “emotion recollected in tranquility”, they were generally turned off by Wordsworth’s decision to include the clunky, archaic and oftentimes bizarre Mariner poem at the beginning. The contemporary politics at the turn of the century largely rejected Coleridge’s poem as an “injury to the volume”, but when we press the fast-forward button to 2012, we can see that Coleridge’s poem is the most enduring part of Lyrical Ballads, save for Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey.

Personally, I think it’s a shame that Alexander Pope will most likely have less notoriety in the year 2030 than he has today. My general approach to the politicization of authors (in identity politics) would be this—include the historically significant poems, and then have a conversation on their virtues and their failings. Instead of slowly removing The Rape of the Lock from the debate, I think we should continue to include it, and the detractors can use that opportunity to explain their objections to his work. If they are truly right, they ought to be able to make their arguments convincingly enough to persuade others.


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One Response to Political Agendas & Poetry

  1. Lauren Starnes says:

    Tim, I definitely agree with you! Just because a work or an author could be considered sexist does not necessarily mean that it does not have merit. Furthermore, students should be exposed to works that challenge their beliefs. If art followed this same trend many people would not be exposed to their favorite artists. For instance, Edgar Degas, who created famous pieces such as “Dance School,” and “Cabaret,” has often been described as a misogynist. Yet, this fact has not stopped galleries from featuring his work and countless women claiming that Degas is their favorite artist.

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