Prose from Poetry Magazine

This Land Is Our Land

As go America’s poets, so goes American democracy.

by David Biespiel

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.

Originally Published: April 30, 2010

COMMENTS (52)

On May 1, 2010 at 12:42pm Michael Harmon wrote:
A brilliant commentary by Mr. Biespiel on the state of American poetry. He hit the proverbial nail on its head!

On May 3, 2010 at 6:55pm Gilbert Satchell wrote:
Dear Mr. Biespiel,

Why bother? In the classroom setting with other poets I get rave reviews but can not get published. Why bother? What you express is what Herbert Marcuse wrote about in "One-Dimensional Man". If you'd like to visit some of my craft go to http://sites.google.com/site/gilbertsatchellart

How can a poet be a sound bite?

Faithfully, Gilbert

On May 3, 2010 at 11:08pm Dan Vera wrote:
I suggest the author look a bit more widely in poetry. While I commend his write up I note the pretty enormous lack of diversity in the poets he's mentioned who've engaged in social and civic engagement in their work. Where's your Langston Hughes Sir? Gloria Anzaldua? Audre Lorde. June Jordan? Ring any bells? Strikingly you'd find these are poets that were quite socially engaged in their communities. The only person of color you deign to mention is Amira Baraka and Monica Youn. Broaden your scope and you just might find more social engagement. Martin Espada. Patricia Smith. Naomi Shihab Nye. Joy Harjo. Lorna Dee Cervantes. Sinan Antoon. And those are just the established national poets. Go regional and the number just expands dramatically.

Second, you should know that the Split This Rock poetry festival in Washington DC has successfully created a space for the kind of socially engaged poetry that Biespiel laments is lacking in poetry today. Every two years in March poets and poetry lovers from around the country have come to the nation's capital to hear and learn about poetry that responds to the needs for reform and engagement. Many of the poets he mentions have taken part in the programming. My only association with Split This Rock has been as a gratified participant in the two festivals. Anyway, they're building what's needed to rectify the situation.

Lastly to the Poetry Foundation: Must your readers of color continue to school you on this? The diversity question I mean? You keep approving stuff like this with no editorial eye for the striking lacunas in the essays you publish. It's the twenty-first century and you'd think this was an archival piece from 1912 given the lack of diversity.

On May 4, 2010 at 1:16am Rand Mackenzie wrote:
I did mention Phil Ochs in regards to the Dead Poets Society spill... was that Phil's ghost that wrote this moving commentary? During these ugly times maybe all we need is a little push.

On May 4, 2010 at 12:32pm Sarah Browning wrote:
I am grateful to David Biespiel for "calling poets to the center of public life," which is exactly the mission of Split This Rock and its biennial national poetry festival, mentioned in Dan Vera's posting above. But I have to agree with Dan that Biespiel misses an opportunity to celebrate the many poets who are participating in the public debate in a huge variety of ways. And guess what? Dan's right - most are poets of color.

For example - E. Ethelbert Miller is the chair of the board of the Institute for Policy Studies, the country's oldest progressive think tank. He also regularly appears on NPR and writes widely on a variety of social issues. Naomi Shihab Nye writes frequently on issues of Palestine-Israel and works tirelessly for peace in that region. She's also poetry editor of The Texas Observer, bringing poetry to a wide audience.

Martin Espada is a frequent essayist on inequality, immigration, and racism in America and on our country's foreign policy. Francisco X. Alarcon recently launched a Facebook page, Poets Responding to SB 1070, gathering poems of solidarity for Arizona's Latinos and protesting that state's draconian new racist law. He has been speaking and reading poems at rallies throughout the west.

And some white poets - Sharon Olds refused an invitation to the National Book Festival and wrote an open letter to Barbara Bush that was printed in The Nation and widely circulated. Mark Nowak regularly speaks out on the human costs of mining - his op ed, "Warning: Shopping May Prove Deadly to Miners," recently appeared in small town newspapers around the country.

All of these poets - and many more, all citizen-poets in their communities and in our nation (and all dramatically different in poetic style) - have read at Split This Rock Poetry Festival in DC (www.splitthisrock.org). Our goals are to encourage poets to participate in civic life and to support the poets who are doing this vital work and who sometimes, as David Biespiel notes, feel isolated from poetry communities as a result. We provide poets with opportunities for civic engagement and amplify their voices. Please join us! Go to www.splitthisrock.org to sign up for the list serv. We are citizens and we are poets - we refuse to be divided.

Sarah Browning
Director
Split This Rock

On May 4, 2010 at 1:30pm Marc Nasdor wrote:
I liked the reference to the rickety kiosk in a dead mall. As a poet, I feel that stagnant air no longer circulated by the moribund HVAC system.

But you seem to have also omitted the entire careers of the so-called Language Poets. Do not tell me that poets such as Rae Armantrout, Bruce Andrews, Erica Hunt, Charles Bernstein, Ron Silliman, Barrett Watten, James sherry and many others have not politically disengaged. The Nation finally has a decent poetry editor in Peter Gizzi. Among the other schools of poetry, there's Anne Waldman, Alice Notley, Edwin Torres...there are too many to list. With your complaint, you have in your sights only the representatives of mainstream American poetry. You didn't even bother to mention Jorie Graham, whose book Sea Change is, quite deeply, politically engaged.

The Flarf and Conceptual Poets may be in the midst of an intense, possibly superficial conflict, but so what? Stirring up sleepy poets is perfectly legit. Such is not the totality of poets' lives.

I'll admit I walked away from poetry for fourteen years because of acute ennui, and having returned, I am in agreement that social engagement is Priority #1.5 or so, but I have never thought of the poetry community as disengaged, except in a large portion of academia of course. Therefore, how about broadening your poetry horizons and seek out the work of poets who are both innovative and engaged. You will find a lot of them, un-couched.

On May 4, 2010 at 2:06pm David Hudson wrote:
Great article! Deep, and profound.

On May 4, 2010 at 2:06pm Doug Logan wrote:
This, as you say, is part of the heart of the matter:

"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.' ...American poetry’s tendency toward self-reflexivity and lyric purity has dissociated its poets from the arenas of democratic public concerns."

Not only are too many poets almost laughably self-absorbed, but in a lifetime academic environment they are starved for experience of the wider word, starved of physical skills, starved, often, of an urge to engage anything but their most effete, rarefied perceptions. This makes a huge number of poems both gauzy and mystifying. Who can read that dreck? No wonder poets are so marginalized. That poet you quote is a bit of a brat. Poets should vow to discuss almost anything BUT poetry.

On May 4, 2010 at 2:17pm David J. Hudson wrote:
I would happen to agree with Dan Vera's comment. Where is the diversity?

There are numerous poets who fail to even get their work published and you assume that they should seek to become more politically active. There needs to be a better vehicle and avenues for poets to travel and then maybe they will get the courage, desire, or confidence to be more active.

If interested in a different perspective in poetry, please visit www.thinkverybig.com

On May 4, 2010 at 5:37pm tom wrote:
Those who wish to change society
might better turn their en- ergies
toward society itself, to the real areas
of oppression and suffering, economic,
political, racial, and sexual. [...] To
blame literature, or culture as a whole,
for social, economic, and politi- cal
woes (or even to see it as central to
their perpetuation) is evasive at best,
dishonest at worst, a kind of posing as
politics. [...] George Oppen gave up
writing poetry for several years in favor
of political activism, because he
believed neither that poetry could
change society nor that it should be
subordinated to an agenda. In Oppen’s
words, “If you decide to do something
politically, you do something with
political efficacy. And if you write
poetry, you write poetry, not something
you hope, or de- ceive yourself into
believing, can save people who are
suffer- ing.” Several years ago, I was
asked by someone I had just met
whether my poetry was Afrocentric. I
told him that I didn’t know what he
meant by that term, and he said, “You
know, dedicated to the liberation of
black people everywhere.” My only
answer was, “I don’t think that poems
can do that.”

Reginald Shepherd

On May 5, 2010 at 12:16pm Anouk Van Perlman wrote:
Dan Vera, did you read the piece? He's talking about poets engaged in civic discourse *outside* of their poems.

On May 5, 2010 at 1:05pm Jeremiah wrote:
I take the poetry to my land; I leave the rest of the world in its desired dust.

On May 5, 2010 at 1:31pm Henry Gould wrote:
What poets do outside their poems is nobody's business.

& what kind of motive for civic activism is the poet's (& poetry community's) desire for more attention? Not a very good one.

The best political poetry does not take sides. It provides a mirror of moral complexity, which challenges the reader's preconceptions & identifications. It engages with conscience & intellect, not just opinions.

On May 5, 2010 at 1:42pm Sarah Browning wrote:
Doug Logan writes: "Not only are too many poets almost laughably self-absorbed, but in a lifetime academic environment they are starved for experience of the wider word, starved of physical skills, starved, often, of an urge to engage anything but their most effete, rarefied perceptions."

Again, I can't help commenting, as that description matches not a single poet I know. I began a litany in my previous comment, but let me add a few more voices: Camille Dungy edited an anthology of Black poets writing on nature and the environment and read from it/testified to Congress on environmental justice. Jan Beatty has been an abortion counselor. Dwayne Betts is a spokesperson for juvenile justice reform. Sholeh Wolpe brings Iranian voices to US audiences and opens the dialogue on our relationship to that country.

Gheez - these are just off the top of my head. Get out and read around a little more. You'll find a wide and wonderful world of social engagement by American poets.

Indeed, Poetry Foundation - with all your resources, why not take the energy spent lamenting what is patently untrue - that poets are not engaged - and use it to amplify the voices of those who are taking an active role in public life. We're all up against a hugely noisy mass culture. The resources of organizations like Split This Rock, of which I am director, are tiny by comparison to say Fox News - or even the Poetry Foundation. We all need to pitch in to help poets reach a wide audience. The Poetry Foundation could start by not erasing us in the first place.

On May 5, 2010 at 2:10pm Dan Vera wrote:
Yes Anouk. And the poets I mentioned were all
engaged in political work outside of their poetry.
Hughes, Lorde, Jordan and the living poets I
mentioned Espada, Smith, and Shihab Nye.
Get to know their work and you'll discover that.

On May 5, 2010 at 4:06pm Enzo Silon Surin wrote:
Although I may be forced to agree with Biespel's assessment to some extent, I believe this summation is clear evidence that we live in a culture where the critic eye continues to function with a limited scope, a malfunction of sorts, in its ability to expand beyond the familiar. The heavily academic influenced culture of poetry has made significant contribution to this cookie cutter, factory mill production of sameness. However, the poet who works in the stacks of a library and fights to save her library, or the one who heads the community agency or the one who works with the homeless, drug addicts, at risks populations, domestic violence victims, etc… do not show up on this list. An unfair assumption indeed based on an incomplete census of the pulse of contemporary poetry.

The reason this may be so is because the poet is too busy doing that the limelight for such actions is not significant nor even an option. Having returned from a service learning trip to post-Katrina Mississippi, with a group of students for their alternative spring break, the last thing I had time for was a press conference. However, my poetry and that of many other poets does reflect such experiences and that is why it is important to value the page as much as the stage. The other factor to consider is the culture (business) of publication that limits the public’s access to works of the active poets, which in turn presents an incomplete picture. No press for poetry means no press for the poet's life. No longer do we live in a society where the common man can hold political office without the financial assets to do so and the same seems to be true of poetry: connection is currency. There is a lot of bad poetry being published; a lot of emotion-less poetry but this has been the type of aesthetic that is celebrated for some time now. And while all of this has been going on, a brave and fervent group has continued to march forward.

We can’t bring political and civic engagement into the same arena as the academic poetry or poetry for the sake of poetry and expect to define them on the same scale. We have to redefine what we mean by political and civic engagement. And yes, to some extent Biespiel is really addressing a specific group of people (bravo) but HE is also erasing a great number of poets who are so involved with their causes and communities that they have no time to respond. The success of poetry in prison programs across the country is evidence of an active culture of poets who are the masked and unspoken heroes of today. The fact that this is not media worthy should not doom these poets to a shadowy fate. Countless poets were engaged and are still involved in Katrina recovery efforts, Haiti Earthquake Relief and other natural disasters that continue to remain nameless except to the people they helped and those who worked alongside them.

I do understand Biespiel’s frustration because there is a pervasive culture that elected itself as the CEO of poetry; an act endorsed by many of the same critics who now abhor it. However, the people have never stopped expecting their poets to be civically engaged, especially the poets who represent minority communities, and many poets have not failed to respond. Pointing the finger implicates many but victimizes even more. To suggest that since a poet is not active in picket lines and in marches that they are not politically active is absurd and a downright insult to the creative process as a whole. Should poets not also be creative in how they decide to engage in the political and civic arena? The page has as many blood spills to attest to, spills that are not so easily cleaned up, covered up or erased from memory.

We need to remember that who and what we choose to celebrate will always be who and what rises to the top of the list; an unfortunate defect of our society. History has taught us that much. And it’s easy to talk about lack of water when one is searching for it in a desert; evidence that the poetry of causes and the sweat, blood and labor of those who write them, though actively engaged in civic action, are considered waste in this American society, rendering the contemporary poet an American Chump. Our poets, these uncelebrated political and civic leaders deserve better than that.

On May 5, 2010 at 7:02pm Garth Weber wrote:
Thanks to David Biespiel for courageously taking a stick to the hornet’s nest of this issue. One could say many arts suffer from the same limited and limiting perspective but that doesn’t diminish his points here. My only cavil with Biepsiel’s essay is that I believe the issue may not be merely whether poets are speaking civically, but whether anyone outside the insular world of poetry is listening.

His opening question—“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 a good one and immediately begs others: Do poets have a unique responsibility to address these matters? Do citizens have a responsibility to care?

Biespiel believes, “Poets are actually uniquely suited and retain a special cultural gravitas to speak publicly and morally about human aspirations.” This may be so, at least it seems so to me, but, as others have commented here, there are many poets who already use their status as “poet” to speak on cultural and political issues. The rub is that most of them speak through their poetry when they do so; they aren’t speaking in a way most Americans will hear. Biespiel’s central point is that in order to engage our American culture, poets must speak / write / perform in ways more culturally engaging than poetry. That may be true, but it also might be a little unfair. Few poets, of course, living or not can or could follow successfully in Havel’s footsteps.

Unless a poet is a celebrity outside of poetry (viz., Lowell, Bly, Rich, Gioia, Havel, to use the author’s examples) or unless, when they take on the responsibility to speak publicly on political and/or social issues, they do so in a culturally disruptive way, who, but poets or fans of poetry, will hear them?

Biespiel bemoans “American poets have a minimal presence in American civic discourse,” and he’s absolutely right. But seems the responsibility for this is shared. We, the audience, must also be engaged in the cultural dialog to make what poets are uniquely able to say influential; and, in agreement with the author, I wouldn’t call “engaged” a defining characteristic of our democracy.

On May 5, 2010 at 8:28pm Henry Gould wrote:

I wrote in a previous comment : "& what kind of motive for civic activism is the poet's (& poetry community's) desire for more attention? Not a very good one." Now I'd like to revise this; it's a little unfair. The deepest motive of poetry is precisely to gain attention, because the poet has something to shout from the rooftops. But rather than idealize, as Mr. Biespiel does, the poet's imaginative scope & magnanimity, the poet's special cultural platform, I would argue (with Kenneth Burke, for one) that poets symbolize a powerful psychosocial/dramatic drive - to resolve conflict, to find some kind of equilibrium. There's nothing inherently noble about it, but it is definitely dramatic. In this sense poetry-making itself is political, a political act (not simply a craft, a game, or an escape, as Mr. Biespiel seems to imply). Which is why the seemingly Byzantine academic debates about style are taken so seriously : they have practical, political ramifications.

On May 6, 2010 at 4:49am Joseph Ross wrote:
I have been a grateful participant in
both Split This Rock Poetry Festivals
2008 and 2010. Both events gathered
poets who are politically engaged in
their communities. Many of the panels
and discussions dealt with how poets
can be even more engaged-- and not
just in their poems or in advocacy for
the arts-- but addressing political issues
head on.

Also, as part of D.C. Poets Against the
War, I have become connected to the
Torture Abolition and Survivors'
Support Coalition. We published a
chapbook of poems on torture and each
year, at their 24-hour White House
vigil, they invite a few of us to read
poems. Yes, this particular activity
comes through our poems but the
relationships built has urged several of
us to deeper involvement in the
struggle to end torture and to support
its victims.

Recently, the wave of poets responding
to the Arizona law, SB 1070, has been
astounding.

While we certainly need more poets
engaged in more political activities, I
see, in my literary community of
Washington, D.C., many inspiring poets
giving voice to the injustices of the
world. I'm glad to be a part of it.

On May 6, 2010 at 7:53am Ari Abrams wrote:
Poetry is not a loudspeaker pointed at
society.

That's what this writer and these
posters seems to think. Like it's got
some 'relationship' to its readers, and it
has to 'do' something.

No.

Poetry is a natural product of society. If
it doesn't come out, it isn't poetry's
fault. It is society's fault.

I'll explain. If you want to know if there
are any good restaurants in some town
you are in, you do not need to go
anywhere to find out. You do not need
to call the newspaper's food critic, and if
you did it would not help.

You need just to stand where you are,
on the corner, and watch five or ten
people walking by. If they look like the
kind of people that eat in good
restaurants, then there are. And if not,
not.

England made Milton, Milton did not
make England. If another Milton were
alive today, and I believe he probably
is, he would not be presenting his stuff
to self-serving ingrown-toenail
audiences of other poetasters.

He might be a mailman or a
stockbroker.

Go fish!

On May 6, 2010 at 11:40am James N Wicklund wrote:
Has Biespiel read Lowell's or Rich's poems. They took their stances without their pens in hand. Has Biespiel demanded that all poets write from a political perspective only? And isn't the spoken soul, no matter its politics, a contribution to the soul of the body politic? If poetry IS our music, it is music we can dance to, sway to, march to (yes), weep, to, love to, etc. Otherwise it isn't a collection (democratic) of voices. Will Biespiel turn to music, painting, and sculpture next. Or is poetry less than art because it sculpts in words?

On May 6, 2010 at 12:08pm Beth wrote:
I suggest a TV reality show with real poets.

On May 6, 2010 at 12:54pm Ed Shacklee wrote:
I don't know Mr. Biespiel, but I'd be surprised if he doesn't contact every poet mentioned in these comments. He's reaching out. Let's all do that.

On May 6, 2010 at 1:30pm Doug Logan wrote:

If I may be permitted one more comment in this thread, Sarah Browning, your cause is admirable, and I stand somewhat corrected in the larger context of Mr. Biespiel's lament. I was talking about poetry itself, not causes. There are certainly poets writing strongly and explicitly for social and political good, and as Henry Gould says above, the best of this poetry is not diatribe or invective. I was thinking particularly about Biespiel's quote from the poet's e-mail and his comment that self-reflexivity dissociates poets from public concerns. I think that's true, and was trying to say that too much self-absorption, like any cause that is hidebound or mono-focused (even, in some cases, political and social causes) can easily lead to bad poetry.

On May 6, 2010 at 2:03pm Francisco Aragon wrote:

I've come to this discussion late and have little to add. But I will say that when I read the piece in question and read: "You cannot believe how hard it is to get an American poet to write about something other than poetry." But first gut response were two questions: "Were any of them poets of color?" As a relatively recent transplant to the DC area, Dan Vera's and Sarah Browning's comments were spot on. POETRY Magazine had it right a few years back when they commissioned both August Kleinzahler and Dana Gioia to review Garrison Keillor's lily white poetry anthology (Which Rita Dove categorically pointed out). They could have had the foresight here, and commissioned a second essay, as well, by someone who's scope of vision is more inclusive.

On May 6, 2010 at 8:41pm Alicia Vandevorst wrote:

I do agree with David that poets are in a position to speak with both power and subtlety in a civic context. Setting the whole debate aside over whether that is happening already or not, I think it is an interesting question to ask oneself, as a poet. I have answered that I do want to step forward and find ways to integrate poetry and civic discourse. I appreciate the ability of poetry to mediate conflict. There is a powerful (though somewhat staged) example of this sort of peacemaking in the movie SLAM. It is also an ancient role of the bard. If you, as a poet, do not feel moved to include civic debate and mediation within the sphere of your poetic practice, that's fine. In that case, America has made you that way (to respond to the comment about Milton being made by England). Mediation is first about seeing where each party is. The first party to check in with is, almost always, oneself.

On May 6, 2010 at 8:59pm Joe Scanlan wrote:

Your argument holds no water for poetry whatsoever, in that it boils down to the idea that poets are special and have special powers. Reread this essay and substitute the vocation "woodworkers" for poets and "cabinetry" for poetry and it makes no less sense, provided you simply believe that woodworkers are special. Yes we are poets. But we are not special. In any case, what kind of political conceit is it that "gifted" participants is what the political process lacks?

On May 7, 2010 at 12:49pm To-No-One-That-You-Know wrote:

Poetry is born to inspire the individual; to get at the heart of him so that he might carry it in his respectable sector of society. To spread poetry over politics is to layer it so thin as to fail to even scratch at the core of the human appetite.

On May 7, 2010 at 1:37pm Larry Sawyer wrote:

There are many valid points here, but I would shy away from statements that proclaim that it's the primary duty of poets to engage with political life (ie, spout opinions, lead political action committees, attend political rallies) moreso than other members of American society do. The primary role of a poet is simply to write poetry and great poetry doesn't necessarily have to be overtly political. But the elephant in the room: That American poets, by and large, not only shy away from the role of taking some active part in being politically engaged beings, but in fact avoid it, is true in my experience. There are many American poets who do play an active role in being politically active, but the vast majority do not. I think most observers would conclude that many poets in this day and age are so embroiled in their academic careers that they have little time for anything else. I doubt whether that was the case a generation ago and I would guess that the intense pressure faced by academics and the threat of stepping out of line (because American universities are money-making ventures first and places of learning second) keeps many poets in lock step working full time to make sure that their path of employment is secure.

On May 7, 2010 at 2:30pm Alicia Vandevorst wrote:

What I was saying about the potential for the poet to act as a mediator in society is based on the particular skills that we develop as poets, not on an idea that we are special in some general way. A woodworker is called on to carve wood well. So why not discuss the way in which poetry does have a social impact, can be part of political discussion, conflict mediation? Surely, it is true that all citizens have a duty to participate if a society is to be democratic. Yet I suggest that poets have specific skills: eloquence and an understanding of rhetoric, practice blending philosophy and daily experience, an attention to quality of life/in life, and, often, a vision that sees the possibility and quality of peace. Now, this is not an elevation of the poet above anyone else. I think everyone has their own skills and, from an absolute perspective(as well as I can see it), all actions are equal. I am speaking for myself and with the sense that there are probably plenty of others who feel similarly. I see the power of poetry to inspire individuals and I see its somewhat more forgotten role (that is not truly separate from the first, only an enlargement). That less-practiced role has no name these days. I think of it as mediation or peacemaking. But I'm not imagining poetry in the courtroom per se. Its more about the intent and awareness of poets while writing. I'm interested writing poems that allow for direct communication to my neighbors and larger community. Maybe in one case the subject asks for a verse drama, in another a monologue. In another case, the best route for a subject may be a lyrical poem. Or poetic tweets. What matters is the poet's own intent to explore a more public role for poetry. In writing and in reading. Even in spontaneous speaking at community meetings.

On May 7, 2010 at 7:43pm Glen G. Mayberry wrote:
How true of the fact that this land is our land. Our Forefathers were the ones that made this land. The soldiers get drunk after theyleave the War. But this man did not worry about his things or his buddies wanted to worry abvout everything but their own private land. Their land is their land and that is where they live at.

So remember nobody can take a nothers Grub Stake right away from her. That is swip.ing the debit for the month for that person. It is his or hers
but the title holder is the real owner of the land.

My pot of tea I have on and it is boiling over so I should quit for now.

On May 8, 2010 at 4:42pm Rand wrote:

I am a simple man that would like to be brief: Grew up during the 60's...the passion of the era will always be with me. I lost my home like millions of others to the "terrorist" (use this word since it is the only one that gets attention). Lost dual mental diagnozed brother that also had cancer. He lived with me in that home. Tried to save home with an activist group (they forgot the word "picket") + really did not have honest passion. I am good friends with human anguish, the physical world, and the spiritual. I have a great need to see a better world for my three children. I want to open peoples minds to the things that really piss us all off. I don't think I need to abandon beauty, honesty, style, personal self, time to myself. Of being away from the palace, school, church, mall, internet, or zoo. I want to simply set a path for better things. There may not be anyone that really gives a shit, but at least I will have had passion and have told an honest story. I am happy reading a simple love poem. I am happy reading a simple poem about nature. We need these poems to help mend our despair. We need poems also to help mend the world. Civic issues will always be available. Herodotus knew of many...things have not changed very much. We can write about issues and also walk in beauty.

On May 10, 2010 at 12:54am RL wrote:
Sickening to me is how no one, apparently, bothers to read each other's comments, but go one typing when already it's been shown that Biespel's main thesis is unfounded or at least only relates to a small circle of poets (making his thesis all the more problematic since he claims it to be true of American poetry at large). Ignoring each other is the business of school children.

On May 10, 2010 at 11:50am Christopher wrote:
RL, how can you say Biespiel's thesis is unfounded? He is speaking of poetry-at-large as it relates to society-at-large; how many poets are aware of Split This Rock? How many poets are now aware of it thanks to this discussion?

What Biespiel is doing here is not ignoring the cultural steps taken by people like Hughes and Nye and STR, but lamenting that the mainstream poetic community is not one of cultural change. Until the "mainstream" poetic community is the one of civic duty and not one of insular, dogmatic literary debate, poets are doing a disservice to the communities of which they are a part.

Look at our country - look at what's important - look at what's rewarded - poetry should be speaking out, not looking in. We've spent enough time looking in. We need to look out; otherwise poetry will remain the little art in the corner, barely lit by the glow of reality televsion and political bipartisan psycho-drama.

On May 10, 2010 at 9:31pm Rand wrote:
Ok this is the last bit from me. In regards to the comment about "Academic positions" that could be in jeporady if one were to take on an activist agenda. Jobs are hard to get! No matter what the stature of the job. Jobs are hard to get! This country has many wonderful merits to write about. There are so many civic groups to join that are about nothing else but good. It is just as important to preserve and stand behind what is right and just about our home. I guess we need that "common ground" that some of our policticols mumble about. I went to the Soviet Union in 1984. My over all impression was that they were so much like us, but supressed. It is always so good to come back home from another country. A few years later I watched the Soviet production of Brothers And Sisters at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego. This was a very politically bold drama about the failure of the Five Year Plan in rural Soviet Union during post WWll. Now you can't tell me that their government did not listen to a few writers with a provocative view! I believe that moments in time come when there is a general feel for the need of change, There was the song written about this when the Berlin Wall came down along with the Soviet Empire (you know the whistle of it). The poet can have an awesome influence during this period of time. The honest love of his country and its fellow citizens will be his guide. There are so many issues, but then there is also so much good. I will work the loading docks and write. The Academic can work the university classroom and write...we are all Brothers and Sisters here.

On May 11, 2010 at 6:09pm Garrett Hongo wrote:

I wasn't intending to say anything publicly, as my response isn't very generous--not designed to polish any reputation, least of all mine. But, as I was invited by the writer himself just this morning, I've decided to post these candid, perhaps ill-considered remarks. It's quite brave of David Biespiel to stir the pot this way, seems to me, but also nostalgic and idealistic. He doesn't look at the disruption and limitation to the cultural role of the poet since Whitman, Emerson. The "representative" function has been taken over by journalism, sportswriters, talk radio, and politicians. Who would listen to anyone called "a poet" today? The name and the category has long been reviled by the American mainstream, surviving only as either sheer mockery or hyperbolic flattery of athletics--both quite detached from not only the contemporary marginal practice, but also the ancient communal and ritual one. It's as though we poets have had to hide or mask that identity and, come to think of it, I do my best to do exactly that. I hate to admit I "teach poetry," as it usually stops conversations cold. Katha Pollitt, as provocative and intelligent a crusader in public discourse as we have, seems to have ceased being a poet precisely when she acceded to being a columnist. There has only been one book of poems since she took that job 20 years ago at THE NATION, then elsewhere. I remember her stating publicly, in fact, on the stage of the 92nd St. Y Poetry Center, that what was wrong with contemporary poetry was "grand public statemtents" such as Czeslaw Milosz makes in "Dedication"--itself a poem of great civic consciousness--in which he asks, "What is a poetry that cannot save nations or a people?" Even our best poet-journalist, expert in civic discourse, seems contemptuous of poems that try to enter it. And, what current public intellectual has written any poetry of note? To name from among those I treasure most: Henry Louis Gates, Jr.? Stanley Crouch? Cornel West? bell hooks? Susan Sontag? Richard Rodgriguez? David Remnick? Charles Krauthammer? Francis Fukuyama? Even my gifted college classmate Louis Menand? The closest we've come is Robert Pinsky on McNeil-Lehrer, but even he never spoke to political and social issues--just poetry! His finest "civic" statements are, in fact, in his great poem "An Explanation of America." When writers have tried to "raise the stakes" and pitch their creativity towards civic discourse, the result has often seemed more fascistic than revolutionary or democratic. I've too often heard them at writers conferences beating chests, pounding hearts, and getting audiences up on their feet against The Man, government, and corporations, to no effect other than catharsis in the peanut gallery--a result completely ephemeral, politically speaking. Had they succeeded in doing more, I fear I might have seen the Weather Underground become reborn. Wendell Berry's own model of the poet-citizen is the pre-modern Jeffersonian farmer--so severely nostalgic, white, segregationist, and privileged, I discount him completely. I'll take Yusef Komunyakaa, Brenda Hillman, or Edward Hirsch or CK Williams and Adam Zagajewski doing what they do over any overt "public" bullshit from any poet stirred by false heralds. I remember newspapers and tv stations asking poets to make statements after 9/11. Too many rushed to interview just to get their names on the front pages at last. I couldn't stand to see them taking advantage of the tragic moment to get in front of microphones and journalists scribbling on their notepads the words of our "poets." When asked myself, I could only quote Yeats--a poet-senator who'd witnessed the volatile results of poetic nationalism v. political imperialism. The last gasp of the poet as public intellectual may have been at the PARTISAN REVIEW at its inception and second incarnation. It's a shame we now would try to assume that role without that same level of education, seriousness, deep private deliberation, and trial by heated internal debates before stepping onto any public pedestals merely to enhance our visibility, hungry for our poet badges to receive renewed luster. No. The role of the public intellectual is too important, too rigorous, selective, and even specialized today, as, lamentably perhaps, has become the more private and sequestered role of the contemporary poet. They have not only become separate practices, but separate educations, perhaps even distinct epistemologies. To bring them back together would take more than just exhortation, but serious re-education of both specialities--intellectual eyeglasses to address the cultural and political myopia of us poets and the visitation of care for the artistic (not political) ambiguities of language and a more personal muse upon our public intellectuals--and, finally, an appreciation for speculation, reflection, and the personal odyssey of evolving consciousness among a public habituated and trash-hooked to intractable intellectual positions confirmed by the emotions of political resentment. Public discourse itself would have to change its premises--from fracassing to searching, from trying to polarize views to seeking amity among them. I haven't seen these things occur in public discourse recently. But my poet's mind, as Mr. Biespiel's too, I'm sure, hasn't stopped making it among the fondest wishes of my civic imagination.

On May 12, 2010 at 1:28am Eric Bourland wrote:

I think most poets are very willing to write poems -- good poems -- about the state of our American culture. But I think that most poets want first to write about themselves. To write their pain, their demons, their ghosts. Then, some poets reach a point at which they feel they have done enough explaining about their own problems, and begin to write convincing poems about the problems of the world and of American democracy. Many poets write very moving poems about their heartaches. Fewer poets reach the point at which they can write about their own hearts, or write about the common democratic heart of America, with equal passion.

On May 12, 2010 at 1:44pm garrett hongo wrote:
"It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there."

WC Williams

On May 12, 2010 at 4:53pm George Witte wrote:

Mr. Biespiel laments that poetry isn't much read by those in positions of political or popular media influence, never mind the everyday citizen. I'm not sure, however, that the problem can be blamed on political or cultural disengagement. There are plenty of poets engaged with politics of one kind or another: Carolyn Forche, Nikki Giovanni, Galway Kinnell, Philip Levine, Mark Doty, and more recently Katie Lederer, Brian Turner, Lee Sharkey, H. L. Hix, George Szirtes, Katy Ford, Nick Lantz, and so on, by the dozens. Some of these poets have achieved a degree of public recognition, others less so, but their effect is cumulative, spread over many voices, many occasions, and many years. Poets have more than held up their end of public discourse--more than most novelists, if my range of reading can be trusted. The problem of disengagement cuts both ways. The "culture consuming audience" that Mr. Biespiel identifies as poetry's best audience is amorphous and variously-occupied with books, movies, blogs, radio, tv, newspapers, and magazines. There are thousands and thousands of poetry books published every year; not even the most dedicated poetry reader can sensibly address more than twenty five or so. I'd wager that most people encounter poetry in bits and pieces, and at particular occasions: a poem here in The New Yorker or The Atlantic or on NPR, a poem there quoted in an after-dinner speech, in anthologies given as gifts or read at school, at weddings and funerals, and at public readings. Those encounters, fleeting and fragile, will lead a few persistent readers to more poems and poets, but most people will take what they get and move on to the next thing...as we do with nearly everything else in our lives. It isn't poets' fault; it's the way we live. Most people and most poets that I know work full-time jobs (not in academia, by the way), support families, and do significant volunteer work in their communities; we have precious little time to read or write and certainly are not squirrelled away for days in hermetically-sealed offices or at writers' colonies. I have finished two books and am completing a third on the train, commuting to and from work, next to guys checking their stocks online, teenagers heading into or returning from clubs, women talking on cellphones or quietly, blessedly, reading. Most of these people don't give a damn that I'm writing, though a few do ask what I'm scrawling in my notebook, and persist with questions and opinions when I tell them. My sense is that most intelligent but occasional readers of poetry have been put off poetry by the way they were taught it in high school or college, not by poetry itself. Based on our conversations, such readers tend to prefer narrative poems (or at least an organized rhetorical through-line) over abstract ones, prefer more formal poems (line, stanza, rhyme) to those they cannot hear or see, and remember poems that have intensely moved them, perhaps troubled them, amused them, or in some way awakened them. If moving, troubling, amusing, and awakening can be considered acts of political discourse, then there are readers for poetry, and there is poetry for readers.

On May 13, 2010 at 12:51pm RL wrote:

Christopher, because you didn't know of Split This Rock, or because your friend didn't, suddenly no one does? Suddenly, the "majority" doesn't? I want to challenge even who you are assuming to be the "mainstream" poetry community. Perhaps if we begin to see people like Hughes, Espada, et al, as the mainstream -- and not marginal -- perhaps our "democracy" would begin to change, radically. Biespel's thesis is unfounded, or at least it only applies to a small minority of poets he did and wanted to find. You want poetry to look out, and I agreed. Poetry DOES look out, has been and still is. If you would only open yours eyes.

On May 13, 2010 at 4:28pm M. T. Corrigan wrote:

As several writers, poetry no longer has magical standing with "the public." Why? Because with Longfellow and Whitman, serious American poetry less and less became a primary and accepted vehicle of culturalization. The "powers that be" liked poetry then, itself; poetry was the main cheerleader for America, binding disparate elements. (I'll grant you Sandburg and some "popular" poets worked in the common vein later, also, but they weren't really strong poets, and they were preaching to a choir humming along to patrotic iambics. First modernism and then postmodernism (whatEVER postmodernism is) rang in the poet as antihero and rebel, the Beats came along, Lowel confessed to firebombing Dresden and Dickey to Tokyo, and it's been counter-culture - even when dressed in suit and tie - all the way ever since. Poets nowadays are preaching to a different crowd, an anti-establishment crowd, and the Tea Partiers opposites - and mostly, anyway, they're writing to other poets, because other poets are the only ones listening! There is no great wellspring of goodwill for poets and poetry outside of certain narrow circles, and "speaking out" is more likely to confirm suspicions than to change minds. Hey, they already KNOW we're crazy. Make little circles with the hand near the ear. Chuckle sardonically. Not, of course, that poets shouldn't speak out, as should any citizen. Because speaking as citizens, insistently, and acting as citizens, consistently, is the only way we drag America out of its consumer-mad ditch. If something as hopeful as an end to the Consumer State ever happens, yes, poets will have helped. But, for now, if poets lead anything in this America, besides a seminar in academia, you've got a scoop.

On May 13, 2010 at 10:26pm Richard Villar wrote:
I have two words for this writer:

CHICANA POETS.

Have a nice day.

On May 15, 2010 at 2:55pm Roger Bernard Smith wrote:
I think the article is on target. While many poets and the organizations they represent (or are represented by) are busy back-biting in their respective bubbles, life goes on. It's a life and world that needs poets and there are so many poets who need to be read. If readers refuse any type of poetry because it is formal, or confessional, or conceptional, etc., it's like refusing to leave a burning city in a Buick, because you only ride in Cadillacs.

On May 17, 2010 at 4:19pm Kerri Buckley wrote:

I'm going to comment, and feel a bit strange doing so, as David Biespiel has been a kind of teacher-at-a-distance to me. Still, I've been following this thread with interest and want to point out that the opposite of what he suggests could have the same results. I think he is speaking for himself, mostly, urging other poets to consider joining him in speaking publicly about civic life. but not all poets can do this. I was heavily involved in politics a decade ago, and in 2002, left that behind with the same degree of frustration Mr. Biespiel writes with about poets not speaking in public. I vowed to make a difference in the world only through poetry instead of activism. Blatant, in-your-face politics, no matter its form, creates more polarized thinking, in my opinion. I like to think of poetry as a sort of homeopathy-tiny doses have a healing effect. All art, whether poetry or painting or sculpture or chapel building speaks of the political climate at the time of its creation. Subject matter, or freedom to choose the subject matter speaks loudly of the politics. It is definitely a mirror of society, its government, the politics, and turmoil. There is always turmoil, even if the turmoil is rooted in complacency. I think the power of poetry also lies in what is not said, in its negative space, and today's poetry will be studied two hundred years from now to understand what our political pulse is like today. Perhaps Mr. Biespiel's essay will be a major find for historians two centuries from now. Perhaps government will regulate what subjects poets take on or don't take on, then. Perhaps the Church will be the government. Hard to imagine in America, but it could happen. Poets will still do what they always do....write about what they love and hate through the craft of carving language, through myth and metaphor and sound, and they will paint society's nooks and crannies just as honestly then as they do now, and have always done. So, I agree with this statement, "The American poet must speak truth to power and interpret suffering," and would replace "American" with the word "All" but this, "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," I am doubtful about. If the issues are personal, as in prejudice and injustice, a poet will write about them no matter what. How they deliver their poetry, whether in print or in speaking, should be up to the poet. If issues are debatable and impersonal, they will just wage more division, more debate, and will lead the poet away from precious time to devote to creating, and more time devoted to consumption of energy, more time invested in the kind of tug-of-war that will always be at the center of civic life. American democracy may be better off with poets like David Biespiel, but speaking publicly about civic issues may not be good for all poets or their poetry. Quite the opposite, and if it affects the poet in any way that does not foster an environment (internal or external) write poetry, then it is not good for democracy. As soon as poets speak in public about civic concerns other than poetry then they are poets who are also public activists and politicians. That's fine. If Mr. Biespiel wants this role (and he has created it for himself through Politico), then we can appreciate his devotion and his freedom to do so. Not all poets feel the same way, and in fact, have chosen poetry as a vehicle to reflect life as they know it, whether societal, political, or cultural, or spiritual in other ways than in speaking publicly (and we are fortunate to have the freedom to write about all of these). Whatever a poet writes, and however they deliver it says much about civic life. I would add that what they don't write or deliver says just as much, and sometimes it says more.

On May 19, 2010 at 7:08pm D Vorreyer wrote:
The article has some interesting points,
but fails to recognize that the author's
umbrella of "poets" does not just
include those who are widely-published
or recognizable names. Most major
cities contain communities of poets who
are engaged in civic and social issues,
supporting literacy initiatives,
education, and GLBT rights, just to
name a few. Oh, and many of them
write about these issues, too. Society
as a whole is disengaged from
civic/political issues - why are poets
singled out as people who need to step
up to this bar?

On May 20, 2010 at 1:55am G. M. Javed Arif wrote:
Right you are. But stop. Will the American poets be engaged with the American politics and American society only? Shouldn't they have a broader canvass - the canvass of the globe, the mother planet Earth, the peoples whon live there in different countries and regions? If all open their visions a bit wider and write exquisite poetry, wouldn't that serve the purpose of poetry better? Whatever a poet engages with, poeticality must not be forgotten or sacrificed at the altar of social and political consciousness.

On May 21, 2010 at 6:47am Chard deNiord wrote:

The following exchange between Mark Wunderlich and Stanley Kunitz took place in a 1997 interview: Wunderlich: That brings us to an interesting point. I'm curious to hear what you think about the poet's relationship to the political. Recently Adrienne Rich refused the National Medal of Arts, citing her disappointment with the government that has, she feels, turned its back on the disenfranchised of the country, and also pointing to the hypocrisy of a country that wants to bestow a medal on a poet with one hand, while doing away with funding for artists with the other. What do you make of the poet's relationship to the political? Kunitz: I must confess it's somewhat awkward for me to respond to the questions you raise. In 1993, the first year of President Clinton's administration, I accepted the National Medal of Arts from his hands at the White House. If I had felt any qualms about doing so, they would have been allayed by the presence of William Styron and Arthur Miller, the two other literary recipients, both of them unimpeachable representatives of the liberal conscience. The President's recent intention to honor Adrienne Rich confirms for me that he remains a friend of the arts and a defender of free speech. Although I am fully aware of Bill Clinton's flaws, I fail to see how he can be held responsible for the trashing of the NEA by Jesse Helms, Speaker Newt Gingrich, and the Republican Congress. Blame them! This government of ours, we need to remind ourselves, is not a monolithic institution. All power does not flow from the top. Since I've thought a good deal about this subject, I'd like to add some further reflections: * To live as a poet in this culture is the aesthetic equivalent of a major political statement. * Beware of manifestos: they are the death of poetry. * A poet is a citizen, like any other. One of the obligations of citizenship is participation in the political process. When you accept an award for your poems, you do not imply that you endorse every action or belief of the donor: you accept it not for yourself alone, for ego gratification, but in the name of poetry and of the civilization inspired by the arts.

On May 21, 2010 at 9:51pm Poet in Baltimore wrote:

Poetry Magazine really pushes this line (i.e., 'poetry is obscure and does not effect culture') and employs critic after critic to write it. What about Walt Whitman? I think Whitman has affected many; his notion of egalitarian democracy was progressive for his time, actually is progressive for the elitist "meritocracy" (irony intended) in which we live, and democracy in "Song of Myself" is much closer to the Declaration of Independence and also the modern meaning of the "democracy" than the actual social structure of the Founding Fathers. Of course today when American brings "democracy," the country installs puppet governments and then murders the people in endless wars. O Whitman. That all being said, yes random academic poets and language game poets are obscure. Great egalitarian poets like Philip Levine and Adrienne Rich are marginally known. Over time, poets affect the culture. If nothing else, through school textbooks. Look worldwide, Whitman has affected many. Neruda. Rich's poetry is wonderful and will last. I think these long essays are for losers. They also lack any true sense of argument (i.e., proving one's point). Emerson would laugh at this. "I know what the talkers are talking I do not talk of the beginning and the end.... Trippers and askers surround me...."

On May 22, 2010 at 10:38am Poet in Baltimore wrote:

I really liked Garret Hongo's long comment above; I liked its spirit, truth, and mostly (though not totally) agree. I. I think this feature essay needs some context. First, does anyone think today a poet putting moral truths in beautiful language can change anything in the short term? Is the truth of the BP oil spill changing U.S. oil policy? No. Is the truth that war is murder, and we are killing thousands of innocent people monthly for geopolitical dominance and oil preventing anything. Not yet. Does anyone believe that speaking the truth will change the CIA, Haliburton Corp., Exxon-Mobile, etc. from murdering people either directly, or indirectly through hired hands and pollution. The answer has to be no, because nothing has stopped the endless war-business machine and stopped pollution economics since 2003. Greed knows the truth, and always has. So, in this context, this essay is naive. I say naive, because the essay like much published in big-name magazines does not recognize the times in which we live. Do you think Bush would have handed the 2000 election to Gore based on reading Whitman, when the fact is Bush and the Supreme Court stole it (read the U.S. Constitution; the Congress decides disputed elections). Therefore, this essay's discussion is antiquated (though written now). To see a literature confronting these times, check out http://www.poemsagainstwar.com II. Now, in a larger, historical and time-reverberating context, Walt Whitman and Thoreau and Emerson have proved to change world consciousness. Gandhi, the great spiritual and political leader, cited Thoreau and also Tolstoy as inspirations. Emerson and Whitman have inspired many in America and around the world (Neruda, J.F.K.). There are poets alive today whose charting of our times will last and affect people broadly if civilization lasts.

On March 12, 2011 at 3:10pm E Martin Nolan wrote:

"Poet" is defined too narrowly here. The kind of poetry being discussed is on the leading edge, pushing boundaries, being difficult and wonderfully rich. But not made for mass consumption. There is, however, another class of poet that has been quite successful: your Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Eminem, Ani Difranco, Nas, Neil Young, etc. There stuff might not be as heavy in the tradition as your high- poets, but poetry finds it's popular market, and the people mentioned above have made some fantastic work and made a lot of people think in the process. Poetry is a political force, if you define it correctly.

On October 28, 2011 at 2:12pm Scot Siegel wrote:
“It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” -William Carlos Williams

"Action is eloquence."
-William Shakespeare, Coreolanus

Social change [and poetry] gains traction not through a movement, but through "a million intricate moves" -William Stafford

A poet should have a vocation, or a passion, outside of poetry before attempting to write poems about the lived-in world; and poets in general should write less about death and more about life as though they are already dead.

-Scot Siegel

On February 3, 2013 at 2:23am cn fuller wrote:
I just read this again in 2013. It impresses me in a number of ways, most of which I agree with as I did in 2010. However, I have a number of nagging feelings about it. I don't know if I'll be able to articulate them here, but, for one, what displeases me about Whitman's poems is they tend to bleed into the deification of nationalism and industry. Two, I'm not sure what we have right now is a democracy to have poets to engage democratically with. Three, much political poetry leaves me cold. Four, for all the successful artists/poets who have done good politcally, there are a number who have have turned into complete crackpots and done true ill. So, in a way, I feel like there is a great ambivalence at the heart of what Mr. Biespiel is saying; that is, what political good a person does in the world isn't contingent on what activities or jobs (poetry writing, for instance) they engage in, but the content of their charcter. Fifth, I think Emerson has done as much as anyone else to lead poets away from being polically active by stressing individualism about all else. Anyway, I could go on... I'll just add that I appreciate Mr. Biespiel's insights, and I would be happy to discuss this matter more, with anyone in or out of a democracy, and I would find a quiet cafe more salubrious to do so than a political rally or during a long meeting to discuss downtown parking.

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This prose originally appeared in the May 2010 issue of Poetry magazine

May 2010

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 David  Biespiel

Biography

David Biespiel is the author of  three books of  poems, including The Book of Men and Women (University of Washington Press, 2009). A book of prose, A Thousand Faces, is due out later this year.

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