The Case for Topical Poetry

Howard Debs and Rattle Editor Timothy Green talk about topical poetry on Rattlecast #88 with a reading of Howard’s just published “Boulder feels like a bubble. And the bubble burst.” Rattlecast excerpt used with permission.

William Carlos Williams wrote, “It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there” (from “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower.”)

Poetry published in newspapers, known as “newspaper poetry” or sometimes “magazine verse,” was a common feature of 19th- and early 20th-century Anglo-American literary culture. American “newspaper poetry” dates at least from the Revolutionary era. (Wikipedia) The poetry dealt with many things; occasional verse, addressing memorial poems for floods, train accidents, mine disasters and the like and the poems were frequently written as lyrics in ballad stanzas. (Wikipedia) There was much verse laced with satire, and plenty responding to the circumstances of the times, for example, “newspaper poetry” was among the ways Americans responded to the turmoil of the Civil War. Such poetry can easily be categorized as a genre, namely “topical poetry.” After all, occasional verse is poetry written with reference to a particular event. (Harvard Glossary of Poetic Genres)

Be it characterized as political poetry, occasional poetry, or otherwise poems addressing the state of things “The way in which events or circumstances stand at a particular time or within a particular sphere; the current situation” (Oxford Dictionary) have a definite place in the poetry canon.

As importantly, since such poetry is relevant to the general populace, it has a good chance to be both read and taken seriously which is what renders such poetry essential in terms of bringing poetry into the living room of 21st century American culture. Consider but two quick examples, one historically relevant, one of contemporary significance. Dmitri Shostakovich the Russian composer said, “People knew about Babi Yar before Yevtushenko’s poem, but they were silent. Art destroys silence.” Amanda Gorman’s The Hill We Climb: An Inaugural Poem for the Country, is the first book of poetry to debut at No. 1 on USA Today’s Best-Selling Books list. And not just debut, but the first book of poetry to even claim the top spot on the list since its inception in October 1993. Understanding there are many factors which play their part in this success story, the amount of interest generated in terms of the general public cannot be overlooked.

But back to Yevtushenko, and poets of the topical like Carolyn Forché. While Forché may have a particularly nuanced definition for poetry of witness, the impetus for such efforts in general is best enunciated by Elie Wiesel who said “Who will bear witness for the witness?” and “They left us without a trace, and we are their trace.” He speaks of those exterminated during the Holocaust, but the sentiment may be applied to others in other circumstances as well.

Demagogues and autocrats and totalitarian regimes recognize the power of poetry. “In Burma, ‘they have come for the poets’” is a recent opinion article in the Dallas Morning News by Christopher Merrill, award-winning poet, essayist, and journalist. He writes of the tragic situation in Myanmar/Burma and in his account of the imprisonment and murder of Burmese poets shares the remark of one local observer, “They have come for the poets.” The article concludes with a poem by Burmese poet Maung Yu Py.

Czeslaw Miłosz said “What is poetry which does not save nations or people?” He said “In a room where people unanimously maintain a conspiracy of silence, one word of truth sounds like a pistol shot.”

For further reading:

American Poetry and the Daily Newspaper from the Rise of the Penny Press to the New Journalism” Elizabeth M. Lorang University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Political The Podcast

An old white Jewish poet and a young cognitive science graduate, Howie and Nellie explore the possibilities and challenges of living in a world faced with the international growth of xenophobia, threats to democracy, and the problems of alternative truth enabled by social media; looking at the past, both classic and historical, and into the future in the 21st century and beyond this pair of unlikely partners combine perspectives joined by their special guests with multi-disciplinary backgrounds to apply philosophical and scientific thinking to deconstruct and reconsider everything under the sun focusing on the meaning of life and making a life with meaning.

Episode 1: Chapbooks, Pamphleteering, and All Things Political

Howie and Nellie talk about Howie’s new chapbook Political why he wrote it and why it matters; the history and merit of chapbooks in general, and about the classic meaning of the term “political” and what it all has to do with living a life with meaning. 

Howard Debs and Nellie Pierce talk about chapbooks, pamphleteering, and all things “Political.”

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In this episode:

Howie and Nellie talk political, storytelling, meaning-seeking animals, chapbooks, pressures on public space, and the history of communications media. Luminaries as varied as Aristotle, Marshall McLuhan, N. Katherine Hayles, and Samuel R. Delany light the way.

  • SEP: Jacques Derrida’s use of the term ‘deconstruction’
  • SEP: Aristotle’s political naturalism
  • MIT Technology Review: Zeynep Tufekci on the populist potential and perils of social media
  • The Convivial Society: on narrative, database, and medium as message
  • McLuhan Galaxy: the electronic ‘global village,’ and its attendant terrors
  • Wikipedia: Fundamental Attribution Error
  • Othertexts: Samuel Delany on ‘contact’ and ‘networking’

have questions/comments/concerns? Contact us.


Announcer 0:26
This is the Political podcast, exploring things that matter to meaning-seeking animals.

NP 0:33
Hi, I’m Nellie Pierce, a writer and scholar from Middlebury, Vermont. I graduated in 2018 with a degree in cognitive science afterwards working as a post graduate fellow in special collections at the Middlebury College Library, and I’ve since been working on a book-length project on archiving, autofiction, grief, and memory in the age of the internet. I contributed an introductory essay to Howie’s upcoming chapbook Political.

HD 0:56
And I’m Howie Debs, the old white Jewish poet from Palm Beach Gardens, Florida and the author of Political the chapbook. So, one of the things we hope to do through this podcast is introduce you to some ideas you thought you had well in hand, try to break things down a little bit, you might say perform deconstruction, not destruction, deconstruction. It’s a term used by a French philosopher, actually an Algerian French philosopher, Jacques Derrida. We hope to explore the possibilities and the challenges of living in a world faced with the international growth of xenophobia, threats to democracy, problems of alternative truth enabled by social media and a lot more. And we’re going to look at the past both classical and more recent history and we’re going to look into the future in the 21st century and beyond, kind of an attempt at, what’s that Buzz Lightyear character from the Toy Story? Infinity and beyond, nothing is going to be beyond us. We’re going to bring in guests from multiple disciplines, including artists and writers, anyone who has something to offer in terms of their thinking, and perspectives on the topics under consideration.

NP 2:34
Our lens on these topics takes its lead from media theorist Marshall McLuhan, who’s oracular maxim “the medium is the message” has proved as applicable to our current circumstances as it is susceptible to misunderstanding. “The message of any medium or technology,” he writes, “is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs. The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts, but alter sense ratios or patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance.” Humans are not only political animals, as Aristotle once said, but storytelling animals in the words of philosopher Alistair McIntyre, and meaning-seeking animals in the words of communication scholar Katherine Hayles, unique among animals our procedures for telling these stories are not fixed by instinct, but rather malleable in the extreme by changes in culture and technology. Today, Howie and I will trace one section of these radical changes through a part of their and our history by discussing the ideas behind his chapbook Political. So we should start at the beginning. What’s the idea behind Political? What are you trying to accomplish with the project? How did that influence your choice of the chapbook form?

HD 3:44
Actually, I wanted to deal with what’s happening around us every day, in terms of how people treat people, and then how that translates to our societal structures as well. I wanted to use the chapbook form, because I associate that with a long tradition of inveighing for something, like, for example, Thomas Paine in his pamphlet Common Sense, which, by the way, I think, originally was going to be titled something like, Plain Truth — nothing but the truth.

NP 4:23
Can you give an example from the chapbook of something that you’re inveighing for?

HD 4:28
Sure. How about this prose poem, Fundamental Attribution Error? Are you familiar with the psychological term?

NP 4:41
Yes, I think so. And for any listeners who might not be I believe it’s a term from social psychology used to talk about implicit bias. So like the attribution of emotion or like malice or any kind of negative connotation that you might make to a stimulus. And that could be something like a face of a particular race or I mean, that’s kind of the obvious example, yeah, so I think we’ve covered it.

HD 5:16
Well, you’ve heard the one about the person walking into the bar. Well, this one’s about the person walking into the library: “Fundamental Attribution Error” –I don’t want to be an alarmist but around the corner outside of this library in an alcove near the emergency exit there’s a good-sized chartreuse suitcase just lying on its side and people are passing by ignoring it; I saw it on my way in to return my books, it’s there next to a large plastic bag stuffed full, I’m not sure what’s inside the bag or the suitcase either so I thought I’d better let someone know–oh, you’re saying it’s someone who’s homeless, who left them there to come inside to cool off, they do it all the time–Okay, so I’ll leave it up to you to decide what to do I didn’t intend to cause a scare but you can’t be too careful nowadays, with so many crazy people out there you know what I mean.

NP 6:35
One thing I find interesting about this poem, Howie especially in our presently contracted public world, due to Coronavirus is its interrogation of what sociologist Ray Oldenburg calls third places, those increasingly rare sites in cities and towns where people of many different backgrounds can gather freely with little to no price of admission. Examples include churches, parks, cafes, barber shops, and of course libraries. Obviously, access to these sorts of spaces has become fraught over the course of the pandemic. For starters, they’re unavailable to the elderly and immunocompromised. Even where limited access may still be enjoyed the necessity of social distancing cuts down on the type of chance encounters that Samuel Delaney citing Jane Jacobs, theorized under the term “contact” in his urban history “Times Square red Times Square blue.” “Given the mode of capitalism under which we live” Delaney writes “life is at its most rewarding, productive, and pleasant when large numbers of people understand, appreciate, and seek out interclass contact and communication conducted in a mode of goodwill.” Of course, this mode of human interchange has never been unproblematic and Coronavirus, is far from the first hazard it has posed to the body politic. As your poem “Fundamental Attribution Error” highlights contact may also carry the threat of terror, invoking procedures of accreditation by which we determine just who is allowed to be where and for how long and why. Importantly, Delaney’s book was written in the shadow of another plague, that of the AIDS epidemic, which shut down the seedy movie theaters through which he a gay man in the New York of the 1970s defined and explored his own social identity. One could argue that in our day, the internet has usurped the role of such gathering places. though the question of infection and how to evict it has not thereby been obviated. In a certain way, I see this as a major aspect of our shared goal for the project of Political. How without succumbing to the “terror,” which McLuhan predicates of oral societies in which “everything affects everything all the time” can we use our interconnectedness to foster and protect a public sphere? Do you agree with that characterization, Howie? What’s your concept of the political?

HD 9:03
Absolutely, yes. emphatic. Yes. That’s essential and important, everything you’ve brought out there. I want to get across the idea that Political the chapbook and this podcast which stems from it, both need to be considered in a much broader context than is commonly understood by the word today. Today, the word “political” pretty much is synonymous with political party. And more practically in the US, Republican or Democrat. That’s not where we’re heading with all of this. We want all of you out there in Podcast land to understand that we need to start with–Aristotle. Yes, I said, Aristotle, the ancient Greek guy much older than even me. Here is what he has to say. I’m quoting excerpts of a classic in and of itself, the Benjamin Jowett translation from 1885. Jowett being the Regis professor of Greek at Oxford at the time. So here’s my man, Aristotle: Now that man is more of a political animal than bees or any other gregarious animals is evident…and man is the only animal whom she has endowed with the gift of speech… the power of speech is intended to set forth the expedient and the inexpedient, and therefore, likewise, the just and the unjust. And it is a characteristic of man that he alone has any sense of good and evil, have just and unjust, and the like and the association of living beings who have this sense makes a family and a state. Speaking of Oxford, by the way, if you check the Oxford Dictionary, going back to the 1550s, it’s all, of or pertaining to a polity, civil affairs, or government, from the Latin “politicus” of citizens or the state. I also wanted to channel and champion, as I say, pamphleteering and the chapbook more generally because here again, the understanding is based on a very narrow impression, which is why I asked you to write your very illuminating article, “A Living History of the Chapbook and Beyond” and I’d like us to talk a little about that.

NP 11:59
Okay. And I think your introduction to my article is perfect, because the emphasis that Aristotle places on humans, as animals of speech, is perfect for the angle that we’re taking on this topic of the realm of the political, it’s kind of coextensive with the realm of speech. And the project of my essay is to investigate kind of the repercussions of changing media forms for political discourse through a period of history. I spent 2018 as a postgraduate fellow at the Middlebury College Library working in special collections, where I dealt with artifacts as diverse as zines, chapbooks, ballad broadsides and social media posts. There on the occasion of an archive visit from a poetry class I wrote a blog piece about the history of chapbooks and appropriately to our subject today Howie found this post online and approached me about using it as an additional bit of context to introduce Political recognizing an affinity in our projects, and I agreed. In my essay I trace the development of chapbook form through its genesis in early modern Europe as a vehicle for cheaply printed ballads and folktales sold by itinerant peddlers to an eager audience of the increasingly literate rural working classes, to the revolutionary pamphlets of the Enlightenment to the form as it exists today, as a niche within poetry publishing, often the domain of independent authors and small presses. We can learn a lot from this historical lineage, but my aim is not to determine a pedigree or establish precedent. What interests me even more than the chapbook form per se, is its status as one among many technological innovations writers have wielded in the conquest of a cheap vivid amateur and decentralized print culture. And when I say print culture, I mean that in the most expansive sense of the word. To that end I’ll read a short excerpt from the article detailing the Promethean promise and perils of this age-long project as it moves into the present day, primarily when it comes to the dissemination of content on the internet: Repudiating some of the liabilities of authorship–but nonetheless retaining rights to skim off the choicest cream from every crop of “user-generated content” — [social media] platforms outsource the means of mass reproduction while they raise questions concerning free speech, data ownership, and the relation between public good and private profit. They also restore to our social world an animate quality scarcely known since the genesis of print culture: when news is spread by shaky cell phone video as often as it is by dry report, and opinions are just as readily expressed by absurdist image templates as they are by argument, we seem to near a referendum on the norms and purposes of discourse. Can the affordances of our technological moments support a radically new and increasingly egalitarian relation between individuals and the communicative means to which they have access? Or must we entertain one of McLuhan’s starker theses: is there room for the democratic way of life in our imploded world?

HD 15:24
Indeed, indeed. Wow, I think this could be a start of a much longer section of this podcast, what you’ve just brought up. What you’ve tried to point out to us.

NP 15:47
There’s a lot more to talk about…

HD 15:52
But I think that that’s about all we can squeeze in for today. We’ve got programs planned on alterity, the other; what it means to be a good citizen, how a community provides for change. And as importantly, the means we use for communicating all of this, through the written word, of course, but much more than that, because as Nellie is pointing out, communication technology is not standing still as we all have recognized living with this pandemic,

NP 16:31
Yes. And we’re hoping to have a call in feature too, to allow you to connect with us in even more ways. Until next time, remember, it’s all political.

Announcer 16:48
Thanks for listening. Please share and tell somebody about it. As Aristotle wrote, it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.

Political The Podcast. Published October 21, 2020. ©Howard Richard Debs. All rights reserved.

“The Salt March”


My poem “The Salt March” published in Writers Resist is my response to another poem. The internet age makes it possible to “interact” with other writers, to produce the equivalent of “call and response.” When I saw video and photos of protesters in wheel chairs being dragged from the halls of the U.S. Congress I was at first enraged. Then I read my poet friend Alan Catlin’s poem “Mixed Message: A History Lesson 2017”. I wrote and told him that the piece authentically demonstrates the poetry of bearing witness. I felt the need to provide a complementing piece, “The Salt March” is my contribution to the colloquy.

“The Holocaust on Display”


Image from the Henryk Ross Collection, Art Gallery of Ontario, used with permission

In this era of fake news and tweets, with knowledge being devalued in many places, we need, more than ever, to rely on humanity’s history in all its truth, both the ugly and exemplary, to guide our decisions about what is happening around us, pointing where we might be headed.
My essay “The Holocaust on Display” published in Hevria is written to justify the arts confronting the Holocaust, as they can and should and focuses on the exhibit of the remarkable photos of Henryk Ross at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.  I hope I have shed some light on the subject. The essay includes my poem “Pictures Of The Lodz Ghetto” with an accompanying audio reading.