Political Poetry?

Courtesy of Valentin Salja

The term ‘political poetry’ brings to mind impassioned verse denouncing dictatorships, demanding social change, or describing the struggle of oppressed groups. But this is only the surface of political poetry. Scratch a little deeper and you find that nearly all poetry is political when we take the broader view that politics is the struggle of taking groups of humans and attempting to make them co-exist with each other, with the environment, or with any other situation. A poem about flowers becomes an environmental love song. A love poem becomes more than just the human value of affection. The fact that poetry has allowed generations to wrap the voice of the oppressed in a non-political guise has led it to be one of the most political art forms in human history. These “quieter” poems, where the political message lies below the surface affect me most. My favorite poet, Chimako Tada, whose poetry—both subtle and introspective—demonstrates how a restrained voice can amplify the power of its hidden meanings, illustrates this.

Born in 1930 in the Fukuoka region of Japan, Tada’s adolescence was spent in the shadow of war. She went to college to study French literature, where she became a regular in the poetic and intellectual circles of the time, including the Japanese avant-garde movement. Her first collection—Hanabi—appeared in 1956. She continued to publish works and teach poetry for the rest of her life, though she almost always wrote in isolation. The recipient of numerous awards including the Modern Poetry Women’s Prize (for her book Hasu Kuibito), Tada has come to be acknowledged as one of the most important and powerful female poetic voices of the last century.

Writing in an era when the loudest voices in poetry were men, Tada achieved what was still a struggle for many women in a society where female poets were still outliers: a tertiary education. This education allowed her voice to echo beyond the confines of her home, as she crafted poems on the relationship between women and men, in both myth and reality. Weaving classical literature into her writings, she conjured verses that opened a door to life as a woman in traditional Japan. Her poems do not openly deal with her trials but reveal the intimate nature of what it truly felt like to be isolated, to be considered different, to be considered less than half—and so in her words there is always a melancholy and tension, a flat indifference to struggle, which in its banality makes us realize her struggles all the more. In her poem ‘Putting on My Face’ we imagine Tada donning the visage of a teenage boy—assuming his clothes she muses, “Strangely enough, they fit me well.” She relates life to a gamble and discovers that if you hide damage in a thin veil of normality, then no one will notice. She ends the poem with, “No longer will I envy any man or woman/ I do not need perfume or pistols/ Just think and I can be/ Concrete woman/ Or abstract man.”

In her poem ‘Myself’ she opens up about her isolation, “I am planted in the earth/ …like a cabbage/ Carefully peel away the layers of language/ That clothe me and soon/ It will become clear I am nowhere to be found.” By assuming the role of man and woman, she blurs the lines that separate them. Tada (who lived in the same house for five decades) draws upon man’s role in the persecution and isolation of woman, in addition to a woman’s role in gleaning her independence. In one of her most famous works ‘Yamanba’, Tada exposes her sympathies for an evil witch of Japanese folklore to whom she compares herself. The opening line “With flies that speak the language of men” viscerally paints how she felt at the time, mirroring her experiences. Moving to describe the lonely life the witch lives, everyday aimlessly doing the same thing, “For fifty years she has lived here/ Conversing with the flies,” a nod to her own existence. She ties the work to her pain with the powerful final three lines, “In any case, I present a flower as offering/ The black lily blooms/ Releasing its faint, foul aroma”.

I have grown up in Western nations, always aware of my heritage and the challenges it creates. Perhaps thanks to these challenges, I have always been a proud and vocal proponent of equality, yet it was a revelation to see such powerful protestations in such stoically constrained verse. I have read hundreds of poems that hit home their message with a sledgehammer—Tada’s subdued voice was at the same time a breath of fresh air and more powerful. Here was a woman who shouldered burdens she did not choose to carry, and through her poetry spread a message that reverberates more strongly today than ever. That she pares herself open line by line in her poems and makes visible her heart is a testament to how strongly she wished to change the times. Tada no longer wanted to be seen as an object for use, or as merely a muse for others; she upended the norm and showed that in her and in all women lies a voice as important as any. Doing so while maintaining her role in Japanese society is an example of her endurance.

Of course, some poems are overtly political—they offer ideology as if it were a deluge thrown from the heavens. But this obviousness detracts from a form that is most powerful when its delicateness is harnessed rather than subdued. Tada’s work shows us that politics does not need to be spoken of plainly or directly, and as such she has joined (and in my opinion surpassed) those poets such as Tuwhare, Ginsberg, Willams, Angelou, who fought for acceptance in a divisive and judging world. Her works came to teach me that it is in the intensely personal that we find the truths of what really matters.

If any lines were to capture so absolutely the totality of Tada’s vision, it would be from her poem ‘Woman of a Distant Land,’ in stanza eight she writes:

During our meals, sometimes a black, glistening insect will dart diagonally across the table. People know perfectly well where this giant insect comes from. When it dashes between the salad and the loaf of bread, people fall silent for a moment, then continue as if nothing had happened.

The insect has no name. That is because nobody has ever dared talk about it.

That the world chooses to ignore what is so obviously there—and chooses not to discuss its existence or accept its reality—does not make it any less alive or apparent. The intimacy of such poetry like Tada’s allows us to open up and speak about things that we would not usually allow ourselves to, and what better way to discuss politics than with an art form where nothing is ever as it seems—where sometimes a political revolution can be captured in the image of a spring bloom.


D. Mars Yuvarajan is a Tamil New Zealand poet.  He holds an MFA in Creative Writing and lives in New Hampshire, when not traveling the world.  He has published six poetry collections to date: Night Owl and Other Poems, Kintsugi, .M.oments (Volume One), Quiet Songs From Yesterday, We Live With the Departed, and In My Dreams I Walk Through Killing Fields.  He owns and runs the independent publishing house Works of Mars Press.

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