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Dissent and Its Discontents in Cold War Poetry

My essay on “Dissent and Its Discontents in Cold War Poetry” has just been published in The Palgrave Handbook of Cold War Literature. Below, I reproduce the introduction and conclusion to the essay:

Allen Ginsberg, 1966

A full history of Cold War poetry would require nothing less than a comprehensive global account of the art form from the end of the Second World War to the collapse of the Soviet Union. It would need to address how the forms and themes of a vast and diverse body of poetic work engaged the social, political and cultural structures of the Cold War. And it would equally demand exhaustive attention to the particular local, national and regional inflections of Cold War poetic culture from the Beats to samizdat.

One way to start such a history, this chapter suggests, would be by tracing the various forms of dissent through which Cold War politics and poetics were conducted and contested. Poetry in the period was never separate from geopolitics, as the imbrication of art and literature with cultural propaganda on both sides of the Cold War divide clearly demonstrates.1 During the Cold War, any seeming deviation from one side in the conflict could be taken as dissent by that side and as assent by the other. The pressure to pick a side was powerful and the financial and cultural rewards significant. Funds from the CIA, for instance, supported Derek Walcott’s ‘entrance into the New York literary marketplace’.2 And Walcott’s later praise of Guyana’s president, Forbes Burnham, for his sponsorship of the 1966 Caribbean Writers and Artists Conference, held in celebration of the country’s independence, was read by some as implicit support for the CIA’s work to bring Guyana’s first president to power and to suppress communist opposition to his rule.3 By the same token, attendance at the 1968 Cultural Congress of Havana meant, in the words of the Congress’s General Resolution, to ‘refuse to cooperate with or to accept invitations or financial assistance from the Government of the United States of America and its official agencies, or from any organization or foundation whose activities lead one to believe that intellectuals who participate in them serve the imperialist policy of the United States’.4
Derek Walcott, 1955

As these examples illustrate, the Cold War produced and often funded new kinds of literary transnationalism in the form of international writers’ gatherings, festivals and other events. Though often presented as attempts to overcome the global divide, these ostentatious performances of regional or world literature were nevertheless frequently polarised sites for ideological battles and powerplay in the cultural Cold War. Writers had to negotiate these ideologically charged forms of transnationalism. If the Bandung conference of 1955 was a moment of Third World solidarity, for instance, it was also arguably about the assertion of Chinese dominance, leadership and racial supremacy within that world, an attempt to present ‘the Chinese as leaders of colored people of the world’.5 And if Charles Wright’s scepticism of this Chinese assertion of power at Bandung credentialed him to receive CIA funding (through the American Committee on Race and Class, a CIA front group) for the Congress of Black Writers and Artists the following year and to propagandise against communism, then W.E.B. Du Bois’s celebration of the Bandung conference and praise for the Chinese might equally have contributed to the US government’s refusal to issue him with a passport to attend the event.6 As the examples of Wright and Du Bois suggest, whatever their aesthetic and political commitments, intellectuals and writers were frequently in the invidious position of having to take sides in the cultural and ideological battles of the Cold War, even when those battles did damage to the very causes they supported, as in the case of Third World solidarity and Black rights. This system of oppositions was reinforced by more or less draconian regimes of persecution—from the refusal of a passport to expulsion from a country, from surveillance to imprisonment—and by a series of incentives, including travel to and participation in the burgeoning post-1945 circuit of writers’ events, meetings and festivals that the Cold War helped to produce and support.

A history of Cold War poetry would need to trace how poets negotiated these new transnational connections and the binary ideological and institutional divides through which dissent and conformity were defined and manufactured globally during the era. In writing such a history, ‘one challenge poetry scholars face […] is to locate rubrics that bridge the methodological gap separating Cold War cultural and institutional history from a close attention to the formal work of poetic cosmopolitanism in the modernist traditions’.7 Such formal and aesthetic responses to larger Cold War cultural conditions have been partially traced through questions of gender, privacy and community and through a careful attention to the interplay between poetics and affiliations with Cold War institutions.8 The most productive of this scholarly work shows how the forms and engagements of Cold War poetics responded to a series of Cold War binaries, including masculine versus feminine, private versus public and communist versus anti-communist. Such various uses of and resistances to these binaries, I suggest, might be collectively understood as the Cold War poetics of both dissent and discontent with dissent. To understand Cold War poetics in this way is to recognise how some poets sought to evade the dichotomising logic not only of hegemonic ideologies but also of the dominant oppositional movements that challenged them. Such poets did not so much dissent from the ideology of one or other side in the conflict as from the terms of the conflict as a whole. They turned to alternative formations, including those based on race, gender, sexuality or postcoloniality, through which they opposed the extension of imperialism and colonialism and the frequent assertion of normative white male heterosexuality that underpinned the cultural politics of both governing positions in the cultural Cold War.

Ginsberg, Prague, May 1965

This chapter offers some signposts for a larger yet-to-be-written history of dissent and its discontents in Cold War poetry. It not only explores but also questions dissent as a paradigm for understanding Cold War poetics. It addresses how the qualities that counted as dissent were contested by poets working both within various national literatures and through the various forms of transnationalism that often predominated in Cold War poetics. The poets discussed here illustrate only a few of the myriad ways in which writers sought to negotiate the Cold War opposition within their particular cultural and political contexts from China to Russia, the United States to Aotearoa/New Zealand and the Anglophone Caribbean. These national contexts in turn illuminate only a few of the many forms that Cold War opposition took in countries around the world from the Philippines to South Africa, India to Chile. The writers examined here nevertheless demonstrate the limits of dissent as a paradigm for understanding Cold War poetry and the need to recognise discontent with dissent as a significant and influential alternative in Cold War poetics. In the United States, for example, the history of avant-garde poetry from the Beats to the Language writers can be mapped as a contestation over how to express dissent. Allen Ginsberg acted out his dissent from the authorities on both sides of the Iron Curtain through high-profile poetic performances everywhere from the 1965 Prague May Day celebrations to, in the same year, the Vietnam Day Committee marches from Berkeley to the Oakland Army Base. Language writers such as Barrett Watten distanced themselves from the ultimately self-expressive approach to dissent pursued by Ginsberg, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov and others, yet still sought to transcend the Cold War divide in their poetry.9 In asserting affiliations with Russian futurism and formalism and with contemporary Russian poets such as Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, they affirmed an alternative form of political and poetic dissent that involved deforming language in order to highlight and attack the ideological underpinnings of the language of US politics and mass media.

By contrast, many Russian and Eastern European writers of the 1970s and 1980s, including Dragomoshchenko, resisted dissent as a paradigm for poetry, even as dissent came to define understandings of the region’s poetry and of poetic ‘seriousness’ in the West.10 Similarly caught in Cold War powerplay, postcolonial poets both invoked and sought alternatives to the binaries of them versus us and individual versus collective through which dissent was frequently conceived. In this sense, the dissent paradigm affected even those poets from the Caribbean to China, the Soviet Union to New Zealand who refused the dominant Cold War framework of dissent. Their ‘dissent from dissent’, as the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski put it, produced alternative forms of poetry.11 These alternative forms of poetry in turn necessitate an alternative framework for understanding Cold War poetics and its legacy for the poetry of today.

John La Rose, Kamau Brathwaite, Marc Matthews and T-Bone Wilson at a poetry reading in the late 1960s or early 1970s, John La Rose Archive, George Padmore Institute, London.

And, after discussing poems by Ginsberg, Andrey Voznesensky, Hone Tūwhare, Kamau Brathwaite, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, and Dmitri Prigov, the essay concludes:

Audre Lorde.jpg
Audre Lorde, 1980

We might think that the Cold War ended decades ago, but the conflict is critical to understanding literature today, and not just because contemporary geopolitical events remind us that the Cold War has, in such places as the Korean peninsula, never gone away and in others has perhaps only been dormant. The Cold War not only casts a long shadow over contemporary geopolitics but its ideological and conceptual structures arguably still shape today’s poetry and cultural politics. We see this ongoing influence in the Cold War origins of contemporary conceptions of transnational or world literature, especially of world poetry, and in the persistence, even intensification, of the discursive oppositions between individual and collective, politics and artistic freedom, the local and global.

In the mid-1990s, writer and editor Dmitri Volchek noted that many of the most innovative poets of the late-Soviet samizdat era ‘found themselves in the commercial, free-market world in the same position as they had been in when they were in the world of the Party and the KGB’.70 These authors, it seemed, were aesthetically marginalised not only for political reasons but also because most people did not understand or care about what they were doing, even when they had unimpeded access to their work. As Liudmila Zubova observed at this time,

[w]hile from the 1960s to the 1980s such texts in our country were rejected by the censor, in the conditions of freedom of the 1990s, texts with deformed language have been rejected by the greater part of society, who were brought up on the aesthetic ideals of a past era and are satisfied with a feeling of personal superiority to the poets. As a result, one can see that no matter how great the amount of political freedom the linguistic resistance realized in poetry will never cease to exist.71

This view of poetry as dissenting from the conditions of understanding was renewed as a form of political protest in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis. In Russia, a younger generation of writers responded to the crisis and to rising nationalism and xenophobia with a new poetry of dissent. Surprisingly, two of the most important models for these younger writers were Prigov and Dragomoshchenko. The very poets who dissented from direct forms of political dissent were now celebrated by a younger generation of activist poets. Ironically in this context, such poets appeared newly relevant not despite but because of their refusal of traditional approaches to literature, expression and dissent. Hence, for instance, Pussy Riot turned to the example of Prigov as one important precursor for their radical political art actions. They presented their protest at the 2018 FIFA World Cup final in Moscow as marking the eleventh anniversary of Prigov’s death, recalling Prigov’s hilarious poems and performances as a Soviet policeman by running onto the football field dressed in police uniforms.

‘Vy nas dazhe ne predstavliaete’, Saint Petersburg, 2012

A punning slogan composed by Russian poet Pavel Arseniev and first displayed on a banner at anti-Putin protests during the winter of 2011–12 illustrates a key reason for the renewed interest in those poets who refused the dissent paradigm of Cold War poetics. The slogan, which became one of the symbols of the protest movement, reads ‘Vy nas dazhe ne predstavliaete’, which could be translated either as ‘you don’t even represent us’ or as ‘you can’t even imagine us’.72 Where to dissent was to be legible within the binary logic of the Cold War, to refuse dissent was to refuse to be understood within its logic. Thus, in the banner, we find two key tendencies that will need to be traced in any future history of Cold War poetry and that remain with us today: on the one hand, the dissenting voice that speaks truth to power by saying ‘you don’t […] represent us’ and, on the other hand, an equally powerful voice that refuses the rules of the dissenting game and its demands that one take sides as the price of legibility. This voice says, instead, you do not understand us, ‘you can’t even imagine us’. Or as Bob Dylan put it at the height of the Cold War, ‘something is happening here / But you don’t know what it is’.73


Published by Jacob Edmond

Jacob Edmond is associate professor in English at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He is the author of Make It the Same: Poetry in the Age of Global Media (Columbia University Press, 2019), A Common Strangeness: Contemporary Poetry, Cross-Cultural Encounter, Comparative Literature (Fordham University Press, 2012), and of numerous essays, which have appeared in journals such as Comparative Literature, Contemporary Literature, Poetics Today, Slavic Review, and The China Quarterly.

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