Poetry : Hannan Hever

2. Politicization

If this is the case, a particular statement in a particular communication becomes political when it may be interpreted as disruptive of conventional rules. This understanding also arises from Bertold Brecht’s well-known Short Organum, which discusses the creation of political effects in art. Through the audience’s alienation from what happens on stage in epic theater (as opposed to classic theater based on Aristotelian mimesis and catharsis, and modes of identification), audience members are encouraged to join the revolution that will change the social order from which they are estranged. From this innovative stance of alienation, Brecht rejects the purportedly “obvious” and “natural” quality of the accepted social order in a capitalist regime, for example, the cooperation of the police with criminals in The Threepenny Opera.12

The innovation inherent in other types of literature may also be political. As we have learned from Victor Shklovsky and the Russian formalists, every poem and literary act involves innovation, which they called defamiliarization or estrangement: every metaphor is an almost unprecedented, new combination, refreshing and renewing our understanding of reality, and undermining the ruling order that attributes meaning. Metaphors are, therefore, political acts. John Brenkman remarks on such an innovation in his analysis of William Blake’s “London,” which he reads as a protest against paternalism and as the pursuit of an alternative political solidarity.13 A love or nature poem may also be political.

And so our question is not whether a particular lyric poem is potentially political, but whether it actually functions this way. Is the poem perceived as political? Innovation and subversion are perhaps the necessary conditions for a poem’s political efficacy, but they are in no way sufficient. The involvement of the poem in the political field of discourse demands an identification of the political forces it contains and the poem’s participation in them. An approach that concentrates only on innovation and subversion is likely to fall into the trap of formalism, which ends in de-politicization, because it does not take into account specific, tangible political forces of the discourse within which the poem operates.

This tangible entity is of course history at all levels and in all its complexity, but political actions that take place in history will never have one clear direction. The complexity of historical acts often inextricably mixes subversion with collaboration. And so recognition of these entanglements, mainly in the taking of responsibility for the political act of political reading, functions as a brake on de-politicization, which lies in wait at the door of formalist readings; the formalist readings make do with recognition of innovation, subversion and defamiliarization in the political poem and do not account for paradoxical possibilities and the constraints of the force field in which it operates.

3. Historical Context Enables Action

The focus here is, like de Man’s, on the process of reading. Ever since Roland Barthes proclaimed the death of the author, attention has turned toward the reader as the one who determines the meaning of the text as well as its political significance.14 It should be emphasized that from the point of view of the reading process, the same metaphors that are perceived in certain circumstances as refreshing and innovative may, in other circumstances, be understood as old-fashioned and worn-out.

But innovation is not enough. A political reading demands a reconstruction of the rules of discourse within which the poem is politicized. In order to examine such a process, we will offer a reading of a poem by Avraham Shlonsky from the sequence “Amal” (toil) in his 1927 book, Be-galgal (in the whirlwind):15

Dress me, good mother, in a glorious robe of many colors
and at dawn lead me to my toil.

My land is wrapped in light as in a prayer shawl.
The houses stand forth like frontlets
and the roads paved by hand stream down like phylactery straps.

Here the lovely city says the morning prayer to its Creator.
And among the creators is your son Abraham,
a road-building bard of Israel.

And in the evening twilight, father will return from his travails
and like a prayer will whisper joyfully:
“My dear son, Abraham,
skin and sinews and bones –

Dress me, good mother, in a glorious robe of many colors
and at dawn lead me
to toil.16

The poem appears to be apolitical. The figure at its center is a pioneer, an embodiment of the avant-garde of the Zionist movement. Through his labor, the pioneer realizes the productivity of the new Jew who has settled in Palestine. The poem compares the paving of roads, an unmistakable hallmark of pioneer labor (and here emphasized as carried out “by hand”), with a Jewish religious ritual, the stretching of a phylactery (a strip of leather) around an arm and a hand; it discusses work in religious terms. The simile appears to reflect a general agreement about socialist Zionist consciousness, and the poem does not appear to give rise to any questions, as it neither problematizes nor protests, and so it is not political, but rather ideological in Marx’s terms: a camera obscura that provides an inverted, distorted representation of reality that serves particular interests that hold it to be obviously true and natural. But a political approach undermines this position.17

The apparent consensus in Shlonsky’s poem is imaginary and covers up the contradictions that exist in historical reality. In the reading offered below, we will see how this consensus is arrived at and concentrate on how the poem becomes political under different reading conditions.

In his essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” Louis Althusser points to literature as an ideological mechanism. As a material practice, Althusser argues, literature represents the imagined relationship of individuals to the real conditions of their lives.18 Through a process of direct address that he calls “interpellation,” individuals, private human beings, are turned into subjects: people who are subject to a particular field of discourse and constructed by it. The subject is not pre-programmed: the subject, like Barthes’ author, is not the humanist source of significance, but rather is fashioned by the field of discourse within which he or she operates, or, to be more precise, is manipulated by.

12. Bertold Brecht, “A Short Organum for the Theatre” in Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, trans. John Willet (London: Methuen, 1977).

13. John Brenkman, Culture and Domination (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987), 129.

14. Roland Barthes, “Death of the Author” in Image, Music, Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill & Wang, 1978); Orly Lubin, Isha koret isha (Haifa: University of Haifa and Zmora Bitan, 2003).

15. Abraham Shlonsky, Be-galgal (Tel Aviv: Davar, 1927), 98-99.

16. T. Carmi, The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse (New York: Penguin Books, 1981), 534.

17. Karl Marx, The German Ideology, ed. C.J. Arthur (New York: International Publishers, 1970), 47.

18. Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” in Lenin and Philosophy, and Other Essays, trans. Ben Brewster (London: New Left Books, 1971).

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