Political correctness and poetry

Wallace Stevens
Poet first, not propagandist.

It’s as tough today to write a convincing poem about political issues as it was during the Depression. A poem that is not strident, dogmatic, and beside the point — if we concede that the point of poetry today, as in the past, is to explore the new, not turn over the old and obvious.

(The dictionary definition of poetry is worth citing here: “the art of rhythmical composition, written or spoken, for exciting pleasure by beautiful, imaginative, or elevated thoughts.” Even if we know that in the wake of war, catastrophe, and civil unrest, elevated thoughts are not as easy to produce as an elevator ride up to haberdashery, say. And beauty itself comes often in camouflage.)

In today’s arts climate, in fact, the new PC orthodoxies are already old, tired, obnoxious, and obvious.

They harken back to the revolutionary foment of the Depression, when either you were with us or against us (a dedicated leftist, even commie).

Skeptic poets Steve Petrini (left) and Greg Zeck, with Mrs Petrini, an admirable animal doctor, in between.

Wallace Stevens, 1879–1955, was one poet dedicated to verse, however perverse and even, in some of his verse, he acknowledged, ironically, “otiose prettiness.” He was a poet, the maker of new things that would last and stay; a reformer, he thought, in poetry and politics, but not a young revolutionary.  He would not “take the point of view of a poet just out of school” (see The Whole Harmonium: The Life of Wallace Stevens by Paul Mariani).

As per today’s young wet-behind-the-ears firebrands, certain words may be allowed. Other words not. Certain attitudes are admirable; others detestable. Certain races and sexual preferences, which have long been “privileged,” must yield to new privileges for minorities and LGBTQ+ (whatever plus is: is it back there in the dark somewhere with Bed, Bath & Beyond?).

If you’re looking to submit literary work to a little magazine and read what the editors are looking for, chances are very high you’ll find among their desiderata the word “diversity” and its half-demented cousins. 

My 2nd book of poetry, just released, Lost & Found: Poems Found All Around, contains a poem, in fact, “What We’re Looking For,” based entirely on such editorial shibboleths. Harken if you plan on submitting to our magazine, the editors counsel:

We seek mysteries and marginalized voices, a sense of shared wonder, inclusive art that asks questions, explores mystery, and works to make visible the marginalized, the overlooked, and those whose voices have been silenced, including LGBTQ+, neurodivergent writers, women and women writers.

Heavens help us all. If we could write no better than this clod of an editor, how could we get into any magazine? (I know! Let’s found our own magazine … and welcome those who look, act, think, and smell like us! Neurodivergent writers, whatever that means! If we can’t find an acronym, we’ll use jargon! Don’t let English get in the way!)

I would hope, that among us older, more experienced, more reflective literary artists, diversity could signal an artist who has the most words, the supplest syntax, the most exploratory mind. What does it matter if he or she is white, black, red, yellow, straight or queer? 

Use your experience in life, yes, and in letters — and let it rip. Don’t be shy. Don’t hold back. Don’t whine about who might go tut-tut-tut. Too many editors and critics are truculent little whiners. Let them whine. Go your way and make it a journey.

In my 70+ years’ experience in reading, writing, teaching, living, and, yes, like you, suffering, I’ve become who I am today — a human being with a lot to say … and a way of saying it. A voice, in short, that does not rely on acronyms, jargon, and petty-minded formulae.

So, please, sir editor or madame, when I grace your journal with a submission, don’t throw me an 18-year-old reader as your first line of defense, someone who’s read little if anything of the literature of the last 100 years. And may be armed primarily with the prejudices of hisr youthful generation. (There’s a pronoun suggestion for you: hisr. His or her. I’m afraid “hers” is already taken and “their” is, believe it or not, plural.)

If you’re looking for mystery, Ms. or Mr. Editor, look at the words of the writer. The words should be true to the writer’s experience in his or her world and in craft. If she has been silenced or, perhaps more accurately, participated in silence, she needs to develop a voice of her own so she’ll have something to say and a way of saying it.

Her voice can’t merely cry weh ist mir! or how persecuted I am!

Get a life, young lady, young gentleman. A life in writing. Learn to write, that is. Dare to stumble, fall. Get up and stumble again. And when you get up, for gods’ sakes revise! 

Writing is a lonely craft. You’re on your own. Get on with it. 

Author: Greg Zeck

Greg Zeck taught college English in Michigan, Iowa, and Minnesota. He also had a career in freelance business writing and communications. He's retired now in Fayetteville, Arkansas, with his wife Jennifer, where he continues to read, write, bike, hike, and garden.

2 thoughts on “Political correctness and poetry”

  1. Good stuff, Oldboy/thing, though didactic (as intended). I appreciate your drift as well as your poetry. My slogan, as an academic, was: if you don’t offend somebody, you’re probably not doing your job. Same holds true for poetz. So, offend at will!

    1. Thanks for the comment. Yes, I suppose mine is a counter-didacticism. If you teach, as you and I have, you are willy-nilly, wouldn’t you say, didactic? I see the word derives, like this, from the Greek: “1635–45;

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