Introduction to a Special Issue on Poetry and Populism

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There was a wide consensus that 2016 constituted something of a populist moment. This special issue is the product of two workshops on Poetry and Populism that took place after the election of Donald Trump and a number of significant events in Europe linked with populism in that year: Brexit, the election of PiS in Poland, the rise of Le Pen in France, for example, were all considered expressions of a populist upsurge. Academic timescales are more methodical – one might say slower – than media cycles and shifts in the political wind. The essays featured in this special issue reflect that in multiple ways. They are the product of two conferences. The first was held at the University of Göttingen, organized by Andrew Gross and James Dowthwaite, in July 2018, and it focused on framing what we termed “lyrical populism” from the early twentieth century to today, from high modernist writing to popular music and film. The workshop concluded with poetry readings by Ellen Hinsey, Joshua Weiner, and Kate Daniels, reflecting on populist moments in Europe and the United States. The second workshop took place at Catholic University of America, organized by Ernest Suarez and Michael Kimmage, in August 2019 and was broader in scope. The populist moment of the 1930s, particularly the rise of Huey Long and his links to the entrenchment of authoritarianism in Europe, took center stage. (A third meeting, planned for Vanderbilt University in 2020, had to be cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.) The participants shared, and still share, a concern about the political and cultural implications of Trump’s election, even now, after his more recent electoral defeat. We also share an interest in poetry. This collection of essays is the fruit of our efforts to think about what poetry has to say about populism.

These discussions emerged from a presidency that has receded into the past, but the question of populism, we contend, has not lost any of its urgency, in part because many of its proponents are still trying to dominate the political stage. We also contend that while 2016 prompted an important conversation on populism, the phenomenon itself has a long history and, quite likely, a long future, too. If we think of the birth of American populism as the founding of the Populist Party in 1891, resulting in William Jennings Bryant running for President in 1896, with subsequent waves of (American) populism in the 1930s centering on Huey Long and the 1960s, Barry Goldwater; if we add to that the latest instance found in Trump’s program in 2016, then we have over a century of populist history on which to map literary interest. The history could arguably be pushed back even further. As the contributors to this special issue demonstrate, the link between poetry and populism offers fertile ground for understanding both.

But what is populism? A number of thinkers influenced those workshops of 2018 and 2019. There is, of course, a potential problem with any academic definition of the phenomenon: is hard to shake the suspicion that losers call winners “populists” when elections do not turn out as planned, and that the moniker is employed, as the saying goes, to describe popular things we do not like. This “sly definition” of populism, as Edmund Fawcett describes it, may contain a kernel of truth, but it also masks something essential about how populists approach elections (355). The title of Michael Kazin’s The Populist Persuasion is meant to signal that populism is not only a movement but a style of rhetoric—one that that has deep roots in the U.S. democratic tradition. Kazin maintains that populism is primarily a way of talking about politics, not a particular set of policies or programs. It also appeals to the right and the left. The flexibility of populist rhetoric, its usefulness to demagogues on both sides of the aisle, is what distinguishes it from a coherent belief system or ideology. Kazin claims that populists form a “moral community” rather than, say, an economic class. In What Is Populism? (2016), Jan-Werner Müller identifies the characteristic populist trope as a “a pars pro toto argument and a claim to exclusive representation, with both understood in a moral, as opposed to empirical sense” (20).  Müller sees synecdoche as the operative figure because populists claim a symbolic majority even when they do not control a numeric majority. Müller, unlike Kazin, judges these sentiments to be expressions of a fundamentally debased form of democracy. In his view, populists undermine the institutions necessary for balancing power by translating disagreements over policy into what are essentially debates about identity (3, 93). Though they tell different origin stories, Kazin and Müller provide complimentary anatomies of populist rhetoric and largely agree on how that rhetoric frames political debate. Populism addresses the representational question at the heart of democracy, but it does so by shifting political debates about policies and institutions into moralistic debates about identity. It does this by making identitarian claims around a “we,” namely “we the people.”

At first glance, populism does not match as well with literary history and criticism as do other political movements: we might think of Virgil’s allegiance to Augustus, Dante’s involvement in the ideological (and literal) conflicts of mediaeval Florence, Milton’s closeness to English Republicanism; in the avant garde of the twentieth century, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and Ezra Pound show the link between poetry and fascism, while writers as divergent as Bertolt Brecht and Louis Zukofsky demonstrate the link between poetry and communism. The case for a link between poetry and populism seems less obvious. If the rhetorical power of populism lies in its motivation of the pronoun “we,” then we can find an analogous gesture in poetry: the lyric is often framed with the lyric persona of the “I” at its center, but what happens when the persona is first person plural?


Each of the contributors to this special issue addresses the question of the relation between poetry and populism in different ways, and from different theoretical, political, literary, and philosophical standpoints. It would be remiss – and, indeed, besides the point – to claim that a consensus has been reached on the general relation between poetry and populism, or on what poetry in the abstract has to offer to present populist concerns. What each paper has in common, however, is an interest in analyzing the uses and abuses of the poetic “we” in relation to politics. Taken together, the articles in this issue offer insight into the ways in which this “lyrical we” is formed, and into the poetical and political problems of forming it in the first place.

Works Cited

Fawcett, Edmund.  Conservatism:  The Fight for a Tradition.  Princeton:  Princeton UP, 2020.

Kazin, Michael.  The Populist Persuasion:  An American History.  Revised Edition.  Ithaca:  Cornell UP, 2017.

Müller, Jan-Werner.  What is Populism?  Great Britain:  Penguin/Random House, 2017.