Flipping through the latest issue of Poetry magazine (why do I do this to myself?) it occurred to me that for the grievance and protest poets out there, politics is the message the poem seeks to convey—but that in reality, the politics is what holds the (purported) poem together in lieu of form.
Stick with me here: a lyric poem is about creating a mental structure to convey an idea or an impression. The meter, the rhyme, all that formal stuff is designed to establish a frame so that the poem’s substantive “argument” fits into the logical patterns the brain has evolved to expect. In that sense, a poem is very much like a joke: a joke also establishes a mental frame and then follows it up with something that’s “apt” or “fitting”—namely, the punch-line—which in a perverse way fits into the logical structure that the joke has established. That’s why many jokes come in “triples”—for example, the old joke about the Frenchman, the German, and the Rabbi who are lost in the desert; the Frenchman says “Oh, I’m so thirsty! I must have wine!”; the German says, “Oh, I’m so thirsty! I must have beer!” and the Rabbi says, “Oh, I’m so thirsty! I must have diabetes!”
The form (i.e., the triple) helps to set up expectations in the listener which the punch-line then disarms in a way that, in retrospect, has a perverse sort of logic to it, and that expresses some amusing conclusion, like a twisted sort of syllogism.
A poem does something similar. The formal trappings—including not just the rhyme scheme, but the metaphors and such, also—help create expectations in the reader that the conclusion then follows up in some apt or fitting way. A good sonnet is the clearest example of this: the envoi ties up all the rest in a neat, insightful, and memorable little package.
But for free-verse, anti-formalist poets, there has to be some substitute for this in order for the work to not melt into mere prose—a fate many fall into anyway. So what’s the substitute for form? It’s politics or ideology, as expressed in the poem itself. If you connect with your reader through something like hating Donald Trump, then that can perform the same function (crudely) as connecting with your audience with rhythm, vocabulary, metaphor, and such. Then you can basically rant as you like, and the readers will follow along because they’re already in that mindset.
In my view, this makes for lazy, redundant, forgettable, bland, me-too style poetry, but I suspect it’s one reason why there seems to be such a strong trend among the activist poets toward this kind of “verse.” Or I could be completely wrong. It’s just a thought I had.