David Biespiel writes eloquently of “the poet who engages democratic dialogue and political life.” But I don’t know exactly what this means. I know many poets, famous and obscure, writing in various styles, who—besides writing poems of which politics are a part—sign petitions and belong to the pta, things Biespiel says are increasingly rare in America. But these are “activism” and “volunteerism,” which he says he’s not talking about. Biespiel’s essay reminds me of Simone de Beauvoir’s account of traveling the us in the early fifties: “Most of the intellectuals I met in New York amazed me with their abstention from social and political questions.” That’s partly a Frenchwoman’s plea for better conversation. But for Beauvoir—and for many Europeans, who had just gone through a war on their own soil, a war about political and economic ideologies—political engagement was life, writing was life, all bound up together. Beauvoir finds it hard to understand Americans’ feeling of helplessness—I like to think it’s helplessness as much as laziness or pampered apathy—and estrangement with regard to politics. Implicit in her critique, I think, is a critique of capitalist liberalism—which is conservatism in the view of a person like Beauvoir.
I don’t think that’s the political context for Biespiel’s essay, but he makes me think he’d like a kind of worker-intellectual-communal-publishing endeavour along the lines of the postwar European left. I’m all for it, in theory, having all the romantic fantasies of a leftist born too late for the grand narrative. But that stuff’s not available in conservative, corporate-run America, and you just can’t get people excited about that sort of thing if you’re all about change from the middle of the road.
Few of us are given the opportunity to refuse a National Medal of Arts like Adrienne Rich, or to use a poet laureateship for political purposes. Fewer still are given the opportunity Dana Gioia had underthe Bush administration. Interesting to consider Rich and Gioia side by side. Rich’s response was principled activist rejection. Since no thinking person could possibly see the Bush administration in a positive light, and Gioia is a thinking person, he must have believed that the good he could do as head of the nea—and he certainly did good—outweighed the symbolic evil of agreeing to serve America’s most malignant administration ever.
Is Biespiel advocating for more politics in poems? Fewer arguments about poetics for the good of the nation? Arguments about poetics are good for poetry. And have nothing whatsoever to do with public life, whether your poetics are politically-grounded or not. Biespiel knows there’s plenty of politically-inflected poetry: I was lucky enough to be published by him in Poetry Northwest’s political issue a few years ago, and found myself in diverse company. But how does the “ability . . . to write poems that penetrate differencesand discover connection” make us “uniquely suited” for effective “political engagement”? I’m currently involved in stopping some illegal construction going on down the street from me, which might be civic engagement, or else bourgeois busybodying. This neighborhood struggle might get into one of my poems, but I can’t see how bringing a poem, or the fact of my being a poet, to a neighborhood meeting would get the builder to conform to zoning laws.
Would Biespiel have Emily Dickinson drop eternity to become a Bertolt Brecht, with his workers’ theaters and political vehemence? That would be as absurd as asking Brecht to be like Dickinson, who never wrote a word in favor of abolition or women’s rights, the two great radical causes of her time. It may be that American civic life “needs an honest broker,” in Biespiel’s words, but the characterization of “the poet’s core values of illumination, imagination, reflection, and sincerity” is an extraordinarily limited view of the variety of our poets. Frederick Seidel’s Ooga-Booga, for one, is a great book, greatly political—and seems to attack all of Biespiel’s core values.
Of course we should all work harder to make the world a better place. Some of us, occasionally many of us, try to do just that, in and out of poems. Resolving our poetic differences is irrelevant to public life, though. I’ll bet the formalist Marilyn Hacker and the Language poet Ron Silliman are pretty close, if not identical, in their politics. The idea of either one changing the way they write for the sake of some illuminating, sincere common ground seems appalling—a papering over of genuine differences, no healthier in poetry than in life.