Was Shakespeare a Political Poet? by Margaret Randall

I’ve never heard it said of Shakespeare that he was a political poet or wrote protest theater. It was simply appreciated in his day, as it continues to be in ours, that the great bard had a talent for creating characters, presenting situations and telling stories that reflect life’s central dilemmas and joys: love, fear, death, jealousy, taboos and the struggle to be true to one’s beliefs. And that he exercised those skills marvelously. His vast output, mastery of the language and skill in taking on the issues of the day—which turn out to be the issues of all days—make his work enduring.

In most parts of the world, good writing that movingly depicts the battles we have with others and ourselves is considered psychologically profound, a useful map helping listeners and readers to contemplate our lives, draw on the experiences of others, and sensitize ourselves to emotions not always expressed in mundane daily discourse. But in the United States, ever since the mid-20th century McCarthy witch hunts,[1] poets and writers who examine the relationships between owners and owned or ask questions about class, race, and other areas of social conflict have been labeled “political.” This is ominously like the sort of censorship that exists in severely authoritarian states, not those that proclaim themselves democratic.

To call a certain kind of poetry political really is a label, not a genre. It’s an accusation that limits and derides. It is dismissive, just as it is dismissive to refer to poets as regional or local, implying that they are worthy of the title in their locality but not on a larger stage. “He or she is a political poet” is an epithet meant to denote a hack whose work is propaganda at worst, at best writing concerned with ideas that are somehow inferior to those that belong in poetry, a genre that they claim should be above such mundane considerations.

There are people who use the label “political poet” in a neutral way or may even mean it as a compliment. What they don’t realize is that all such definitions circumscribe and limit. Despite the existence of centuries of exquisite love poetry in all languages, when we note that so and so “writes love poems,” we most often mean that they produce the saccharine verse that appears on Hallmark greeting cards. When we say someone is a pastoral or landscape poet, we are saying that their work is passive and low-key, devoid of the highs and lows that sound when writing about other subjects; we do not imagine them conveying the drama of monumental weather events or the effect global warming is having on our planet. In a society in which politics has been reduced to the crass power struggles among those who twist language and deed to personal benefit, when we call someone a “political poet” we are stigmatizing them.

I write about everything that touches me: my New Mexico high desert landscape; the realities of being a woman, feminist, lesbian, mother, grandmother and great grandmother at the beginning of the 21st century; memory, its erasure and enduring pull; shame, crisis, injustice, fear, death and everyday experience. Within that broad and diverse sweep, politics demands attention. Not the narrow partisan politics that characterizes both ends of the spectrum (“both sides of the aisle,” as the pundits are so fond of saying), but the deeply political themes we invariably inherit and that bear on the ways we choose to live our lives. My poems have more questions than answers. I explore the connective tissue to be found beneath the camouflage of everyday events. Because nothing is foreign to my pen, political issues included, I am frequently called a “political poet.”

I reject the label.

My life journey took me from my birth in the year of Spain’s Civil War (often referred to as “the last good war”), childhood in a white upper middle-class suburb of New York City, west to New Mexico with my parents and siblings in the 1940s, adolescence in provincial America during the stultifying 1950s, back to New York at the end of that decade where I lived among the city’s abstract expressionist painters and Beat poets, then on to Mexico during the turbulent 1960s, revolutionary Cuba during the 1970s, Nicaragua where a new people’s revolution was taking its first steps during the 1980s, and then a return to my homeland where I was forced to fight a deportation order by the US government because it considered some of my books to be “against the good order and happiness of the United States.”[2]

How would it have been possible for me to write accurately and convincingly of my time and the places in which I’ve lived without including political observation in my work? And yet I was also soaking up cultures, languages, peoples, customs and landscapes. And I continued to love, mother, marvel at nature and follow many other passions. All of these elements found their way into my poetry and, in fact, it is precisely where they intersect that I often find what I want to say.

Between March and May of 2020, the world was seized by a plague, a highly infectious influenza-like illness that sickened people and killed them worldwide across all economic, social and political lines. The first COVID-19 case was said to have been in Wuhan, China; a perfect pretext for racist finger-pointing. Needless to say, everywhere the poorest and most vulnerable members of society suffered measurably more than the wealthy and others protected by privilege. Aid was apportioned unevenly and inadequately. This was a public health crisis but also a highly political scenario. Statistics were tabulated daily but told a partial story. They showed a picture weighted by inequality and generated a chaos of fear while unable to convey the ways in which the pandemic was affecting the world as we have known it. The differences between how the crisis was being addressed by nations that care for their citizens and those with neofascist regimes demonstrated this inequality in starkly brutal terms. Everything seemed political. In truth, everything was political, and also deeply human.

I found myself writing poems out of and about the pandemic. These poems emerged in what soon became a sustained surge of creativity. Sometimes I wrote two or three or more in a single day. I began posting them on Facebook. People responded. It was clear that I was asking the questions others were asking, searching for answers and finding only wish lists. Expressing shared fears and hopes. The world was changing around me. It still is. What kind of a world will we have when we have come through this devastation? Will we come through?

I soon realized that I had a book of poems. I called it Starfish on a Beach: The Pandemic Poems. Almost in tandem with my writing, a wonderful translator in Buenos Aires[3] asked if she could render the work in Spanish. In July a bilingual edition—Starfish on a Beach: The Pandemic Poems / Estrellas de mar sobre una playa: los poemas de la pandemia—appeared from Abisinia Editorial in Argentina and Editorial Escarabajo in Colombia. In October an English-only edition was published in the United States.[4] The book is currently being translated into Mandarin. Requests for interviews about my process writing this collection continue to come in. Magazines on three continents continue to ask permission to publish selections from it.

This body of work certainly mirrors the politics of the pandemic, and also the fear it engendered, the small acts of kindness between individuals and the cruel acts of abandonment on the part of the powerful forces at play. Risk opens us to what may come next. Social prejudices, cultural tendencies, and unexpected outcomes all show up in this book. Are these political poems written by a political poet? Or are they, like all the poems I write, reflections of life as we know it at this particular moment in time: bearing witness, giving free reign to vision and making room for imagination?

How do words that have always had neutral meanings acquire negative ones in the public consciousness? We have seen this happen repeatedly. Communism was one of a number of ways of organizing society, like socialism or capitalism. Since the victory of the Russian Revolution and Soviet State, McCarthy and those like him succeeded in getting us to think of it stereotypically; it became a catchall for a rigid authoritarian government that wanted nothing more than to destroy the American way of life. And this popular connotation persisted long after the fall of the Soviet Union and the dilution of international Communism. The word liberal suffered a similar distortion, and neoliberalism was heralded as a positive policy when in practice it has meant domination and exploitation for millions. Similarly, globalization has been touted as a coming together of peoples when it has a generated a greater than ever breach between the very rich and miserably poor.

The word ideological has been twisted to mean leftist people or ideas, when its original meaning relates to any system of ideas from right or left. The same can be said of the word political. When those on the right accuse us of being “too political,” they are saying that we are too far left, when in fact to be political is simply to understand the world in political terms. When those of us who write poetry are called “political poets,” we are being told that our poems reflect a leftist point of view. In truth, every expression puts forth a point of view of one stripe or another. Discourse that avoids taking a stand assumes a default position which is likely to be conservative.

During the Trump presidency words and their meanings have been twisted as never before. Antifa, for example, which stands for antifascist, has become an epithet. The term cancel culture is being applied to the movement to tear down the monuments to racist leaders and remove offensive names from sports teams. The idea of cancel culture implies erasing our culture or history rather than providing a much-needed corrective to the plethora of offensive statues that desecrate our landscape. As someone who believes in women’s equality—a longtime and proud feminist—I know all too well how the word feminist has been degraded until a whole generation of women who believed in equality refused to identify as feminists. By sheer force of repetition, lies are accepted as truths. It is too bad that we haven’t been able to retrieve the word political, restoring it to its rightful meaning. Because we have not, the term “political poet” continues to plague and diminish those of us who include political themes in our work.

If we cannot reclaim the political as a natural part of life, let us at least condemn and reject the condescension with which the term is wielded.

[1] During the Cold War aftermath of World War II, Senator Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957) claimed Soviet and Communist spies had infiltrated US political institutions, universities, the film industry and other areas of intellectual life. He held hearings at which he subpoenaed and questioned those accused. Some denounced their colleagues; others would not speak. Many lost their jobs or were imprisoned. Some committed suicide. Among the many byproducts of this period was the sense that a progressive point of view was an impediment to getting ahead. The chill on American letters lasted many years after McCarthy himself was discredited. Its pall continues in some academic circles today.

[2] In 1967, while married to a Mexican, I’d acquired Mexican citizenship. When I returned to the US in 1984, the government invoked the 1952 McCarran-Walter Immigration and Nationality Act to order me deported because of opinions expressed in some of my books. My case lasted five years, and I won it in 1989. This is an actual quote from one of the decisions rendered against me.

[3] Sandra Toro.

[4] Wings Press, October 2020.

About the contributor

Margaret Randall is an American-born writer, photographer, activist and academic. Born in New York City, she has lived in Spain, Mexico, Cuba, and Nicaragua. She spent time in North Vietnam during the last months of the U.S. war in that country and has written extensively on her experiences.

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  1. Fascinating article. Thank you. I am not North American and often wonder about the fear and narrow-minded interpretations.

    “My case lasted five years, and I won it in 1989. This is an actual quote from one of the decisions rendered against me.”

    Is there somewhere I can read more?

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