Completely Political

By Gerald Stern on 8.24.09

Budd Schulberg who wrote “On the Waterfront,” died this August at 95. He was famous for his novels, short stories and screenplays, and for the fact that he named names (unfortunately and unforgivably) for the McCarren-Walter Un-American Activities Committee, a precursor to McCarthy and McCarthyism, but was more or less unknown to the new generation. He said that it was the writer’s duty to speak out against injustice.

Budd Schulberg addresses the Un-American Activities Committee. Photo via

He said that only the “writer” could do this, perhaps ignoring religious figures, politicians, historians, broadcasters, activists of all kinds. Of course many of them writers. I agree, though, that it’s the writer’s, indeed the poet’s, job to speak for justice. As the prophets did, and the great journalists. But of course, not constantly, and not exclusively. It’s as stupid to say there can be no great political poems as it is to say there can be no great love poems, or nature poems—or poems at all, after Auschwitz. If, in a certain period of time, say five or ten years, there are very few political poems, there is something weird going on. (I mean political in the widest sense! Isaiah was political, and Henry Miller, and Rilke. And, of course, you can write about your dog, or a leaf, or the rusted snap of a 1940 pocketbook.) Williams was absolutely right—you can’t trust CNN or the New York Times alone. Don’t be rejective, snobbish, and cowardly. That’s the beginning of fascism.

Here is a poem I just wrote. Completely political:


The two of them argued who would take the head

and who would take the feet the way they fought

over whether the breathing stopped before or after

the bleeding began, though it could have been a goat,

they way they shouted, and they could have petted the stiff

hair between the horns as he was screaming,

or they could have stopped to argue about the haunches

and who to consult if the neck was already broken.

topics: Columnists