I am with David Biespiel in his call for American poets to look from their desks to the people congregating outside their windows. Poetry should reflect more than its self-reflecting self—who’d disagree with that? But much of Biespiel’s discussion of how poets can be/become better citizens is too simplified and general to be of use to anyone who actually wants to “represent the great potential that poets possess to engage civic discourse.”
Biespiel offers a vague proposal for how poets might become less “inconsequential”: “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.” I not only strained to imagine a poem that isn’t poetry, I strained to see the point of discussing poets without discussing their poems. (If we’re not discussing a poet’s poems, can we fully discuss him/her as a poet?) Biespiel says he’s not interested in “the idea of poets engaging the public just through their poems,” but he manages a disparaging reference to the “harebrained, ‘truther’ talk” and “cockamamie nonsense” of Amiri Baraka’s poetry. Why, I wondered, wouldn’t Biespiel give Baraka the same gracious defense he gives Robert Bly? Using his poem-ignoring logic, shouldn’t they be equals? Haven’t both poets, whatever their ideologies, “made themselves accountable in the public arena” throughout their careers? The contradictions and ambiguities ultimately undermine Biespiel’s good intentions. He calls for poets to increase their “role in the life of American democracy,” but he does so by way of a terribly narrow measure of poets and poetry.
There are, no doubt, “various coteries . . . consumed with art-affirming debates” in poetry, but I’d argue that a broader perspective reveals many contemporary poets with a range of social/democratic concerns. Mark Nowak is an easy example. His recent collection Coal Mountain Elementary is not simply poetic speculation, but an innovative collage of texts and images concerned with the dehumanizing effects of the mining industry. Claudia Rankine (Don’t Let Me Be Lonely), Cathy Park Hong (Dance Dance Revolution), and Roger Bonair-Agard (Tarnish and Masquerade) also combine civic concerns with what Biespel calls “the poet’s core values of illumination, imagination, reflection, and sincerity.” These poets complicate and enrich the relationship between art and politics.
I’m absolutely interested in poets who are doing exactly what Biespiel proposes. Elizabeth Alexander’s role as inaugural poet was a terrific occasion to ask what a poet in that position should be/do. Shouldn’t she have been considered in Biespiel’s essay? Or Luis Rodriguez: Throughout his long career he’s played key roles in community organizations and support groups for youths, gang members, poets, and many others. How is he not a model for the very poet Biespiel calls for?
Part of my civic duty is to let others (students, relatives, David Biespiel) know that there are many poets speaking “truth to power”: Thomas Sayers Ellis, Brian Turner, Wanda Coleman, Eileen Myles, E. Ethelbert Miller, Ron Silliman. We can learn more from what they have done than from what Biespiel says has not been done. Moreover, to mention them does not undermine his call for more civic poets, rather it suggests a more nuanced and varied definition of civic poetry. It’s how we come to a fuller notion of the our in “This Land Is Our Land.” E Pluribus Unum. Out of many, one. If we’re going to discuss democracy and poetry, let’s really be democratic.