In the squares of the city—in the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office—I see my people
And some are grumblin’ and some are wonderin’
If this land’s still made for you and me.
America’s poets have a minimal presence in American civic discourse and a minuscule public role in the life of American democracy. I find this condition perplexing and troubling—both for poetry and for democracy. Because when I look at American poetry from the perspective of a fellow traveler, I see an art invested in various complex, fascinating, historical, and sometimes shop-worn literary debates. I see a twenty-first-century enterprise that’s thriving in the off-the-beaten-track corners of the nation’s cities and college towns. But at the same time that poetry’s various coteries are consumed with art-affirming debates over poetics and styles, American poetry and America’s poets remain amazingly inconsequential to the rest of the nation’s civic, democratic, political, and public life.
This divide between poet and civic life is bad for American poetry and bad for America, too. Decade after decade, poetry slips into its fifteen-hundred-copy-print-run oblivion and scattered identities on the Internet, and we hear not one chirrup about it from the leading thinkers or writers who have access to a dialogue with the greater public. The culture-consuming audience that should provide poetry’s best readers has scarcely noticed its diminishment. Or if they have noticed, they have also come to feel excluded, unconcerned, and dismissive because they believe that American poetry has become so esoteric that figuring out the differences among the warring poets and styles is wholly unnecessary for leading a culturally rich or civically engaged American life.
Before I go on, I want to make a distinction between poets who moonlight as cultural writers, on the one hand, and those who are engaged in political discourse, on the other—though the distinction in some cases may be minimal. For instance, on the side of those preoccupied with art, music, and culture other than poetry, I would include W.S. Di Piero, August Kleinzahler, Meghan O’Rourke, and Lloyd Schwartz. I would add the poet Edward Hirsch, in his capacity, since 2002, as president of the Guggenheim Foundation. I would further make a distinction between activism and volunteerism, which are not my subjects here, and civic discourse and democratic engagement, which are. I also don’t mean to take up the idea of poets engaging the public just through their poems or to address the role that hard-working poetry administrators play in trying to bring more poems to more people.
Instead, I mean to question American poets’ intractable and often disdainful disinterest in participating in the public political arena outside the realm of poetry. By way of anecdote: During the past five years I had the good fortune to be editor of Poetry Northwest. The magazine’s mission includes curating a dialogue between poetry, the other arts, and civic life. You cannot believe how hard it is to get an American poet to write about something other than poetry. “To write about something other than poetry,” one poet spat at me in an e-mail, “is to waste my time.” Fair enough. A poet must make his way in the world as best fits his vision for himself as an artist. But American poetry’s tendency toward self-reflexivity and lyric purity has dissociated its poets from the arenas of democratic public concerns. On rare occasion, poets have thrived among the vanguard of political protest, most visibly during the abolition movement in the nineteenth century and again during the Vietnam War in the twentieth. Afterward, though, as Wendell Berry noted in his 1975 essay, “The Specialization of Poetry,” poets then receded into the fields, quads, and coffeehouses of an isolated and “constricted” art.
But I ask you: Is contemporary poetry’s aura of self-reliance mixed with cultural victimhood so pervasive that individual poets shirk any sense of responsibility for addressing matters of civic or political concern? Is it unrealistic to expect the contemporary poet to leave the enclaves of poetry to speak about something other than poetry, and in so doing risk saving American poetry and perhaps American democracy too? Or must we all admit finally that what poetry has become—perhaps was destined to become in our assimilated, couch-potato culture—is simply another industry of hermetic self-specialization? Understand that I have enormous admiration and affection for the poet who composes poems in quiet rooms of contemplation and lives a rich, full life of privacy. I empathize with the poet who says, “Hey, don’t start, Dave. I’m concerned about nuclear technology in Pakistan being sold to rogue partisans in an unstable or despotic country, but it’s also important that I work on my new manuscript of poems.” Sure. Fine. But at the same time, the poet, said Ralph Waldo Emerson, is representative, and he “stands among partial men for the complete man, and apprises us not of his wealth, but of the commonwealth.”
But before that kind of cultural, subversive, Emersonian infiltration happens in this century, there’s still the weird American poetry culture to confront as it relates both to itself and to larger demographic trends. Sometimes it seems that one clique of poets is determined to speak an entirely different language from another clique—so that these various groups, growing more and more certain in their views, hunker down and accuse the others of misunderstanding and extremism. Then, just embracing or defending the poetics of one’s sect results in reinforcing the prejudice. American poets favor a definition of themselves in the cultural firmament as outsiders, lone wolves, individualists, and displaced persons. As a result, America’s poets have become so thoroughly enamored of this precious and sanctified self-definition that, like the precious and sanctified Henry David Thoreau, they want no part of democracy’s “dirty institutions.”
Poets are not alone in this regard. Fewer Americans sign petitions, attend galleries, join associations, or even socialize. Fewer people run for elected office or join ptas. Organization memberships are in steep decline. The number of ordinary Americans who attend public meetings of any kind has dropped by almost 50% since the early seventies. Interestingly, the same goes for participation in the family dinner. At the same time, self-sorting into homogeneous enclaves, American society has become a collection of increasingly specialized interests. The fragmentation infects families, friends, and neighbors. Where we once lived near work and people unlike ourselves, we now live far from our jobs and surrounded by those who are similar to us. More people sink into the couch to watch television and play video games or surf the Web. More people cluster and bond in groups of friends and associates that are like-minded in aesthetic values, child-rearing habits, economic ambitions, marketing interests, and, of course, partisan politics. It’s so much birds of a feather in my voting precinct that, in 2004, Democratic presidential candidate Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts received 90% of the vote. Wondering if it were possible that 10% of my lefty neighbors actually voted for President George W. Bush, I double-checked. Whew! Almost half of that 10% went for the various minor candidates, kooks, and write-ins. To reinforce the point, 2008’s results in my precinct were practically identical. Senator Barack Obama of Illinois won 90%, Senator John McCain of Arizona 6%, Ralph Nader and the rest 4%.
Now consider the balkanized world of American poetry. Like Americans everywhere, America’s poets have turned insular and clustered in communities of aesthetic sameness, communicating only among those with similar literary heroes, beliefs, values, and poetics. Enter any regional poetry scene in any American metropolis or college town, and you will find the same cliquey village mentality with the same stylistic breakdowns. Over here you have the post-avant prose poets, over there the kitchen-sink confessionalists, and across the road are the shiny formalists—and no one ever breaks bread together. As with politics, where you have “I’m voting for That One” liberals and “Time for a Tea Party” conservatives, poetry has evolved into a self-selected enclave, and also—exactly like other sectors of American life—it has stratified into enclaves within enclaves that are hyper-specific and self-referential.
Such inclination toward stratification—whether it’s exemplified by the world of poetry or something else—is more than just an example of demographic sorting. It’s a modern American phenomenon that ultimately corrodes both self and society. Whether it’s in poetry or politics, self-exclusion catalyzes isolation and diminishes shared connections. In its more partisan forms, it impedes cooperation and contributes to a chronic inability to find common ground—whether it’s literary or political ground. Making fine distinctions in art, aesthetics, poetry, and politics matters, but honest discourse is about bridging differences, not just defending one’s side, something you rarely see in poetry’s rudimentary or even iconic debates—or, for that matter, in the country’s political ones. More, when you look at a fringe art like poetry in light of this civic gleaning, you quickly conclude that the capacity for poets to connect to audiences from more than some micro-segment of American life is fatally imperiled. Unless something gives, the fractures will just keep fracturing.
Obviously, the responsibility for civic engagement does not lie only with the poet. The relationship between poets and democracy is an example of a horrible reality. That is, America’s existing civic conversation is shattered. Meanwhile, poets have sidelined themselves from public democratic dialogue—with the poet existing as a kind of cultural tinkerer, secluded in his rickety kiosk in the dead mall of American civic life. I mean, consider any individual poet at any period of his career, and you will always find him preoccupied with fresh plans to redouble his efforts at self-study.
But what a hideous paradox. The same forces that make the American citizenry anti-poetic have also made Americans, including poets, anti-civic. The citizenry has turned inward and toward very specific pursuits—so while the American poet was specializing in the self, the potential audience for poetry was too. Maybe when Emerson wrote “The Poet” in 1833, and Walt Whitman wrote the preface to “Song of Myself” in 1855, it made sense to believe that if poets just wrote poems that celebrated the relationship between reality and the soul, then an American audience for poetry would come around, and the poets’ influence on civic life would grow from that connection. That must have seemed like an efficient, even subversive literary program for an era in which there was little competition for literate audiences—especially ones shifting from frontier pursuits to urbanized pleasures. But whether it’s cause or effect, the vast fragmentation in today’s cultural consumption coincides with audiences seeking ever more self-reflexive forms of art, entertainment, information, insight, and knowledge. For proof, just check your most recent Internet search history.
Given the ability our poets have to write poems that penetrate differences and discover connection, and given poetry’s ancient predisposition for moral persuasion, surely America’s poets are uniquely qualified to speak openly in the public square among diverse or divisive communities. That’s why for an American poet to be something like a subversive today would mean not pushing further inward into the huddles of poetry, but the opposite. The poet who engages democratic dialogue and political life is the renegade, while the one who lives on the margins, settles into tenured existence, or remains committed to engaging only other like-minded types has aligned himself with something that in its best, purest, and most satisfying form is bourgeois comfort. What’s missing in our Republic’s public discourse is the poet’s mastery of reflection. The—I swore I wasn’t going to use this expression, but here goes—“unacknowledged legislators of the world” is one of poetry’s great, self-glorifying characterizations. But perhaps some acknowledged legislating on behalf of mankind wouldn’t be such a bad thing either—for poetry or for democracy.
In contrast to the American poet’s studied distance from civic life, I would offer the Czech writer Václav Havel, who used his literary license as a basis for democratic activity, political leadership, and non-violent revolution, culminating in his election as president of the Czech Republic in 1989, a position he held for some fourteen years. Is there anyone in the world who thinks that Havel’s literary background—as opposed to his having, say, a military background—did not increase the moral authority he summoned in his civic and political life? It’s not that there hasn’t been any recent involvement by American poets in democracy or politics. But the examples are excruciatingly rare. In the sixties, on account of his opposition to the Vietnam War, Robert Lowell refused an invitation to the White House Festival of the Arts from President Lyndon B. Johnson, an act that was a capstone of American poets’ protest of that decade’s cold war adventurism. This public act followed by some twenty years Lowell’s conscientious objection to serving in wwii, detailed in a private letter to his fellow Brahmin, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, saying that he would not serve in the Allied army—thus becoming the first male in the Lowell family since the American Revolution not to fight in an American war. I would note Adrienne Rich’s more recent refusal of the National Medal of Arts during the Clinton Administration, as well.
Other poets have made themselves accountable in the public arena and have had an impact on the American political experience—Allen Ginsberg in the sixties, Rich in the seventies, Robert Bly in the eighties, Robert Pinsky in the nineties, and Katha Pollitt for three decades in the pages of the Nation. One could name others like Gary Snyder and Wendell Berry and Charles Simic—as well as those from nineteenth-century American letters, such as James Russell Lowell and John Greenleaf Whittier, who were fierce abolitionists, politicians, and poets all wrapped into one. In 2003 Sam Hamill stirred up a poetry protest against the Bush Administration’s impending invasion of Iraq, galvanizing poets across the nation to post anti-war poems on Hamill’s Poets Against the War website (the name was a take on the sixties anti-war group, American Writers Against the Vietnam War, founded by Bly and David Ray). Dana Gioia, who admirably directed the National Endowment for the Arts for eight years, was more than just involved in civic engagement. He was a political appointee confirmed by the us Senate. Monica Youn’s work on campaign finance reform on behalf of the Brennan Center for Justice in New York is superb. And even though I reject Amiri Baraka’s hairbrained, “truther” talk about 9/11, the fact that he was speaking from the perch of the poet who was serving in a public role as poet laureate of New Jersey lent obvious weight to his cockamamie nonsense.
I’ve just named a nifty dozen or so, but these poets only represent the great potential that poets possess to engage civic discourse and influence political debate. Why aren’t there more? One reason may be that there has sometimes been a distasteful, perhaps prohibitive price exacted from their fellow poets against such public efforts. Take Bly, for example. When I remarked to a national literary administrator that Bly, ever since the success of his 1990 book, Iron John, has had trouble getting any serious little magazine to review his new books of poems, this literary advocate, also a poet, objected. He contended that Bly had turned his back on poetry. Turned his back? Bly spent decades in the hardscrabble vineyards of American poetry and everyone knows it. His political engagement has brought readers to his and other people’s poems across languages and cultures.
What I’m getting at is this: Poets are actually uniquely suited and retain a special cultural gravitas to speak publicly and morally about human aspirations. And when more poets participate in the public sphere of democratic discourse and even politics, then I’ve little doubt that one consequence will be greater public enthusiasm for the private revelations of our sonnets, odes, and elegies. It’s not that poets have to give up either the debates about poetics or their solitary compositional habits and products. But American civic life needs an honest broker, one who possesses the poet’s core values of illumination, imagination, reflection, and sincerity. American democracy needs the citizen-poet to address a gamut of difficult-to-solve public issues such as cultural fragmentation, national health care, decrepit infrastructure, threats of terrorism, energy consumption, climate change, nuclear proliferation, warfare, poverty, crime, immigration, and civil rights. And America’s poets are surely in need of vital avenues to reconnect with the American public.
For sure, America’s poems will go on clicking along, phrase by phrase, line by line, like some undiscovered nerve in the multi-multi-story of American life: cacophonous, diverse, unsettled, hybridized. I want to suggest that a great public will peer into the world of poetry if the poets will speak outside of the chiseled monuments of poems and distinct aesthetic debates directly to matters beyond memory, private reclamation, and linguistic chop-chop. Surely some poets are ready to escape the art’s strange civic silence and enter the blunderbuss of American democracy. For too long now American poets have followed their own footsteps. They’ve roamed and rambled. And while poets have had their backs turned against American civic life, go figure, America has turned its back on poetry too.
Sadly, to acknowledge—especially in this magazine—that the poet barely makes an impact in our great, daily, national, democraticdrama is to feel that contemporary poetry is buried alive. But, as go America’s poets, so goes American democracy. Beyond the essential concern for writing poems, the poet’s role must also include public participation in the life of the Republic. By and large, poets have lived by the creed that this sort of exposure can be achieved only through the making of poems, that to be civically engaged in any other fashion would poison the creative self. But while poems are the symbolic vessels for the imagination and metaphor, there are additional avenues to speak to the tribe. The function of the poet may be to mythologize experience, but another function is to bring a capacity for insight—including spiritual insight—into contact with the political conditions of existence. The American poet must speak truth to power and interpret suffering. And just as soon as the American poet actually speaks in public about civic concerns other than poetry, both American poetry and American democracy will be better off for it.