There is a difference between propaganda and political art. Both attempt to influence viewers or readers to take some sort of action — whether it is to support this leader, protest that one, take up arms, or lay them down — and both tend to lack nuance and self-criticism, but propaganda more so. Propaganda is organized, and not always by governments; political art is not.
In the July 2012 issue of Rethinking Marxism, we have a selection of Occupy poetry, edited by Thom Donovan, that is somewhere between propaganda and political art. It is no surprise that these poems rail against policemen, businessmen, and capitalism, and are peppered with a bit of theory here, a “praxis” there, but what is most striking is simply how bad these poems are.
Perhaps wanting his selection to seem open and representative, Donovan writes (in an effort, surely, to raise Orwell from the grave) that he “only” offered a “few directives” to the poets: “1. That they exemplify questions or problems integral to their poetry/poetics; 2. That they take into account the ongoing struggles for collective freedom and justice that the occupations represent; 3. And that their contributions be based in text/language.”
There is nothing noteworthy about telling poets to apply their beliefs about poetry to their work (“directive” 1) or asking them to use words (“directive” 3), though why he would have to specify these things is beyond me. But his demand that they “take into account the ongoing struggles for collective freedom and justice that the occupations represent” is exactly the sort of limiting directive one finds in propaganda. In the eighteen poems included in the selection, for example, no poet “took into account” the struggle within the Occupy movement to act justly towards each other or other citizens. There is little nuance and no self-criticism.
And little quality. Most of the poems are mind-numbingly boring. In Josef Kaplan’s untitled piece, for example, we get a recycled graduate school paper: “De Man’s book gives us two aspects of Marxism: Machiavellianism and Marxism, and the historical materialism and practical criteria or canons of historical and political interpretation.” Who even reads Paul de Man anymore? And how can Marxism be an “aspect” of Marxism?
Brian Ang gives us a sort of Hegelian chart that contrasts “anti-community” (“A danger of community is its immanent cultural valorization leading to illogical thought and ineffective praxis”) with “totality” (“Considering the totality of knowledge combats a danger of considering partialities of knowledge leading to illogical thought and ineffective praxis”).
We also have the predictable overuse of the phrase “f–k yourself” and its cognates, which I suppose is there to make the poems feel revolutionary, as well as disconnected syntax and a bit of toying with the fonts to make the poems seem experimental. There is even a spoof Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died.”
I am sure Donovan would accuse me of missing the point. The poems are perhaps clunky and boring on purpose, to prevent them from being co-opted by the market. Or perhaps the fragmentation and occasional image of violence is meant to shock us out of our blind enslavement to capitalism’s masters. But this sort of reasoning has been used too much, and no one is buying it anymore.
The fact is Donovan’s selection is not just bad poetry, it’s bad propaganda. A number of poets, even great ones, have written poems that are either straightforward propaganda pieces or highly political. The Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, for example, produced anti-German posters for the Russian State Telegraph Authority (ROSTA) and poems such as “Left March! For the Red Marines: 1918” with stanzas like this:
Rally the ranks into a march!
Now’s no time to quibble or browse.
Silence, you orators!
have the floor,
Enough of living by laws
that Adam and Eve have left.
Hustle old history’s horse.
I like Mayakovsky’s work, if only for its exuberance, and this is far from his best. But as far as propaganda goes, the poem has the value of being clear and inspiring in a simple sort of way, using syntax and repetition to effectively stir his audience’s emotions.
The only piece that comes close to inspiring any sort of action or empathy is Dana Ward’s “From ‘A Trip Back in Time’ for Anne Boyer,” which imagines life “after the fall of Capital.” Reflecting on the time right after the “golden threads” of Occupy “swamped” capitalism and overthrew its “desecration,” Ward writes: “Lovers swooned in the high grass & clinging vines hung down like hair from the sun.” Musical notes float across the air and, I kid you not, “open stardust fractals of its matter.” There is at least something of the appeal of “flower power” in this poem, even if it is hopelessly naïve.
Not all bad ideas produce bad art, mainly because people are inconsistent. Truth breaks in here or there and salvages what might otherwise be of little lasting value. In this respect, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some good poems written during the Occupy movements last summer, but these are not those poems.