Fight the Power, we say when we feel we are oppressed, ignored, disenfranchised. Such call to combat personifies power even as it collectivizes, anonymizes, and objectifies those who wield it. The Power, The Establishment, The Man, all of these are variations on the same idea: the powerful are a uniform and oppressive entity motivated by self–interest, arrogance, and greed, by antirational and undemocratic impulses. The only fight is the fight to overthrow them.
Power to the people, we offer in reply, as if we people are so different from any other kind of people, that us rational actors are bereft of power due to injustice. But, we are suspect animals who crave for ourselves that which we mistrust in the hands of others. We’re a questionable people who convince ourselves we’d keep the same cudgel unbloodied in our care.
We might optimistically believe that all our political bickering is a function of misunderstanding. If I could simply explain my argument more clearly to you, you’d come around to my side. Yet, I can’t recall many political debates, whether on a televised dais or in a dim barroom, ending in sudden comprehension and the joyous backslaps of consensus. This is because our first disagreement isn’t with what the other is saying. Our first disagreement is over our relationship to power: who are the oppressed and who the oppressor, who The Power and who The People.
To the Alt Right and supporters of Donald Trump, the ascension of President Barack Hussein Obama is a proof of injustice. A black man of Kenyan extraction, in all likelihood a secret Muslim, couldn’t possibly have won the majority of votes in a white and Christian nation. Thus, the claim that elections can be stolen is a persistent and necessary explanation. It confirms the moral superiority of the losing side while rendering the winner a fraud, his every action erroneous. Every attack on him, no matter how outlandish, is legitimated. He is The Power, self–interested, arrogant, greedy, corrupt. They are The People, oppressed, ignored, disenfranchised. Any fact–check or evidence to the contrary is apologist, irrational, or an outright lie. There is no truth. There is the speaking of truth to power, and it is correct and it is just and it is good.
Swap out the Alt Right with the Progressive Left, replace Obama with Donald J. Trump, the dogs with cats, the matter with antimatter, and the system goes on spinning. We don’t misunderstand each other. We live in alternate universes.
The poem should resist becoming a functionary in this kind of debate. Any poem that strives to be powerful within the confines of our political dynamic is destined to be celebrated strictly by those already sympathetic to a cause. It will anger few, challenge fewer, and convert no one. The poem that seeks to be politically powerful cannot simply express what the poet already believes to be true. That’s the work of pundit and politician. The poet must instead discover something about her or his worldview in the writing of the poem. If we do not, the reader won’t discover anything either.
The means to accomplish this resides entirely in the forces of diction, syntax, and description, the effect someone else’s language can have on our perceptions, not of politics, but of reality itself. This is why so much depends upon that red wheelbarrow. Not because William Carlos Williams’ imagist riff is a comment on the value of agrarian implements in a modernist culture, but because it makes us look at the wheelbarrow, renders it differently than it has ever been rendered before. Ditto the best minds of a generation, the Colonel and his bowl of ears, the citizenry of Claudia Rankine.
It’s the poem that seeks first to disrupt the language and mind of the poet who writes it, to notice what has not been noticed already, to trouble every premise, every perception, that can dare disturb the universe. Anything else is just more chanting at the rally, impassioned for sure, but entirely too easy to ignore.