I see the term ‘activist poem’ is spreading, or spontaneously appearing. No doubt it has many individual usages or histories I am unaware of. However, I want to differentiate because it bothers me that it might be used generically to indicate a poem noting a problem that requires addressing or even rectifying, that it serves the purpose only of creating debate and awareness.
For me, the activist poem is a ‘performative activist poem’: one in which action is an implicit part of the writing, delivery, and hopefully the reception of the piece. I am extrapolating from ‘performative verb’ whereby the act is performed by writing itself (or speech). The poem becomes a literal act with cause and effect. Its action cannot be denied because it is an implicit part of its creation (and delivery).
It is not about delivering a window into ‘history’ (I think ‘history’ has failed as an activist prompt) or an overview of a situation that merely provides knowledge or alternative ways of viewing the situation. Rather, it is an intrinsic part (a contrary part) of the situation it critiques. Born of the place it seeks to protect and preserve. A part of the moment, of the whole.
I am not using the expression in the sense of ‘performative writing’ (though an activist poem might deploy aspects of this), nor of Austin’s ‘performative utterance’, though ‘utterance’ is certainly part of what I personally do. Maybe it’s best to quote that ultimate system of systems, the OED (that through adding new words and ‘pop’ expressions creates the illusion it’s growing and flexible when in fact it’s reinforcing the terms of its own creation and duration) regarding ‘performative’:
‘designating or pertaining to an utterance that effects an action by being spoken or by means of which the speaker performs a particular act.’
It’s the ‘effects an action’ that is key (or pertinent) here: the poem needs to come out of the situation and work to resolve the problem. I don’t mean merely an act of nominal intervention or disruption, or an ‘artistic moment’ that enters discourse and brings change according to a socially self-supporting (cadre) system, but a poem that puts itself out there to suffer the same alienation and potential damage suffered by the subject (the ‘wronged party’) it is trying to protect.
From an ecological pacifist perspective, this would be the poem in front of the hunter’s guns, or the poem coming out of the bush that’s being bulldozed, spoken in front of the bulldozers. I am being quite literal. The activist poem requires its moment of activism, rather than being written in a protected space and hoping people will ‘hear’ (they won’t). A few academic or poet-mates might hear and back slap a bit, but nothing will change. Okay, collect these moments post-event, but accept they then become something else. They are no longer the performative activist poem, but rather the subjunctive activist poem.
If you’re vaguely interested in where I’ve discussed the writing of activist poems, you could see my book Activist Poetics or go to the article (one of a series I did for Poetry Review): Kinsella, J.V. 2007, ‘Lyric and Razo: Activism and the Poet’, Poetry Review, 97, 1, pp. 66-79.
A few notes from recent conversations might further illustrate my point. One of my very sharp correspondents rightly differentiated what I am saying from ‘situationist’ moments (which he said were a ‘good model’ but weren’t about poetry per se), which pleased me. These are some of my words from that correspondence:
I just don’t see history as being as useful... in terms of an activist text — I want to enact resistance immediately — (rhetorical) lyric as gesture and literal action-intervention.
...’history’ is there, but in the moment of intervention it becomes either overshadowed or deleted. Violence if you’re on the receiving end annuls most things. Seems a privilege of writing locale to me that I find deeply bothering. If you write the war zone, then confront it and try to stop it (in a pacifist way) immediately. Too much conjecture, too much wandering in text. Text should be there, here, now!
That’s what I am on about re making the poem a live part of protest and resistance rather than a record or even a prompt to discussion (they’d like to think action, but it’s only coterie action when and if so).
So, poetry is part of it, not just a tool for analysing the wrongs (and at best promoting discussion among like minds). I suppose in the end this might seem like hair-splitting; surely any poem that claims to be activist and that is working to rectify inequalities, bigotry, exploitation, and damage is a good thing. But there is a difference in modes of approach, and ‘activist poem’, as a term, is always going to wear too many faces to retain emphasis.