Is poetry political? It seems a silly question to ask, even during National Poetry Month (which is technically not state-sponsored but very much in the spirit of public communion). Plato, in his Republic, called for the censoring and banning of poets. For centuries, in societies as different as Britain and China, court poets explicitly addressed the social and political mores of their time. Obviously, poetry is political.
And yet, for most of the 20th century — a century when Chile’s Pablo Neruda, Ireland’s W.B. Yeats, Korea’s Ko Un, Nigeria’s Wole Soyinka, and Amiri Baraka and Adrienne Rich in the U.S., among many others, engaged eloquently with politics — poetry wasn’t exactly perceived as the hot center of activism. But that’s changing here in America, with poets as diverse as Tina Chang, Patricia Lockwood, Claudia Rankine, Carmen Giménez Smith, Danez Smith, and Jillian Weise instilling their poems with urgency and advocacy in a culture at war with itself.
What’s also changed is the way our government supports (or hinders) the arts, via agencies and programs like the National Endowment for the Arts — long in the crosshairs of Republicans — and, less famously, the National Student Poets Program. The NSPP, which sponsors five high-shool students a year by showcasing their work for a national audience, was launched in 2011 under the auspices of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities and its honorary chair, First Lady Michelle Obama. Partners included the Institute of Museums and Library Services (IMLS), the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, and the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, whose national medalists are the only eligible candidates for the program.