Archambeau talks about something that most U.S. writers will smile knowingly about: poets who claim to speak truth to power, when power isn't listening. I think, though, the problem isn't really that the power isn't listing, it's that people aren't listing. In many wealthy industrialized nations, people are more or less capable of speaking for themselves, and so don't turn to literature to represent communities. The exception to this, of course, are subaltern communities (for example racial and religious minorities, gay and lesbian communities, and until very recently, women). But for the most part in wealthy industrialized nations the common recourse for writers who want to 'speak truth to power' is relying on language that can't be exploited, that stands outside of the logic of the marketplace as resistance to capital. This, of course, doesn't usually create direct connections or solutions to real problems, but offers instead an alternative sense of valuation - that there is more to life than subsistence. The problem is that when poetry offers abstractions in the face of real problems, it removes itself from directly addressing these problems. The more esoteric and apart from worldly issues it becomes, the fewer people rely on it to speak for their concerns, and the more removed it has to become in order to fulfill its sense of purpose. (These are my thoughts, though drawn from Archambeau's discussion).
So, does poetry accomplish anything? Archambeau says that in some circumstances, it does - especially in subjugated cultures and societies. Literature thrives, he says, in situations where vast percentages of populations are disenfranchised, because it offers an alternative means of expressing something that isn't being represented. In this way (and I hear a note of Neruda here) poetry speaks for an otherwise unrepresented community, it is a "voice for the voiceless." Not a community of poetry readers, but an identity group. They read poetry not for it's pure aesthetic enrichment of their lives, or for a search for morality, truth, beauty and the sublime, but because it is perhaps the only place in which their voices are heard, and in which their values are expressed. Archambeau even quotes a colleague as saying that "When you look at a country in which poetry is highly valued outside of a literary community, it's generally a sign of underdevelopment."
With these thoughts about poetry as a means of identity politics for disenfranchised communities whirling in my mind, I came across today an article in the online magazine Guernica in which Joel Peckham writes:
A nation does need its poets and poetry. However much people claim to dislike it, poetry—those articulated symbols and metaphors, those stories that resonate with a community and are therefore essential to human aspiration—responds to the basic need of individuals to reach beyond their small existence and connect with something meaningful. At its worst, poetry simply records the longings of an isolated individual but, at its best, when one poem or poet tunes into the longings of a people, poetry provides us with an articulated affirmation of our purpose as a culture—and indeed, culture cannot exist without it. This relates to why rhetoric is such an important part of the political sphere. A political speech attempts to give a vision in keeping with a nation’s core values while also trying to expand, adapt, and reaffirm those values for successive generations.
Guernica, April 2009
There is something here that strikes exactly at the heart of it: great, powerful and political poetry is for communities. And not communities of poetry readers and writers, but a larger sense of community, one not restricted by geography or language. Poetry can't convert (usually), but it can speak, it can galvanize and it can be the spark of ignition for communities to take shape and become heard around.
Poetry has power only when looking outside the individual, or the specialized literary community, to address and take part in the world around it. And it is not only powerful, but necessary.