Letter from Poetry Magazine

David Biespiel Responds

by David Biespiel

I appreciate and applaud all those who have weighed in on my essay, here and elsewhere. I take exception only when my argument is mischaracterized and when that mischaracterization is used as a basis for dismissal. This debate is not about poems. Contrary to what some have suggested, my essay does not conflate writing political poetry with the public role of the citizen-poet engaged in civic dia- logue. Nor do I claim that what’s needed is more political poetry. In fact, I have written elsewhere about my resistance to political poems. I dread poems that are antithetical to the imagination or to discov- ery. Too often political poems are little more than propaganda and so overtly doctrinaire that they are ultimately unliterary. Such poems are not even effective as politics.

Still, the dichotomy between poetry and the political is an honor- able one: on the one hand, the need to be socially responsive, while on the other hand, the need to be creatively free, to be true to the complex facts of living, and also to affirm both life and art. I’m cer- tain that whatever political poems I might return to as a reader are important to me least of all for their politics. They last beyond the political drama from which they arise.
But, as I say, I did not write about political poetry in my essay. I wrote about the poet’s role as a citizen in American democracy beyond the writing of poems. And none of these letters refute my central points: American poets have a miniscule voice in national democratic dialogue; the art of American poetry embodies the same over-specialization found in nearly every community and discipline in American life; and both of these matters are corrosive to democ- racy and to the appreciation of poetry.

Nor, getting to those mischaracterizations, did I write about Amiri Baraka’s poetry. I was referring to Baraka’s essay, “I Will Not ‘Apologize,’ I Will Not ‘Resign!’” in which he defines all manner of multi-national and international conspiracies related to the World Trade Center attacks. I do not object to his writing such things, but I reserve the right to think that they are nuts. Nor did I contend that poets shouldn’t engage in “art-affirming” debates or that poets should change the way they write in order to be more political. In fact, I wrote: “a poet must make his way in the world as best fits his vision for himself as an artist.”

Nor did I worry that poets might not know enough about the world’s complex “facts.” I mean, c’mon. We contain multitudes. To believe that poets or anyone else can’t walk and chew gum in public is to have such conveyor-belt thinking that one might as well have the head of Henry Ford and the heart of Mao Tse-Tung.

So I do not stand with the cynics who say that we can’t be citizen- poets or, like this season’s petulant populists, that we’re radical individualists so please leave us alone. And while I am glad to learn of other poets who act politically, I feel despair for those who be- lieve that, since I didn’t name every single breathing example, my argument is moot. Instead, I stand with the idealists. I hold that poets retain a special stature in the human community. Certainly, as Richard Wilbur has said, there are “risks of corruption in becoming a poet-citizen rather than an alienated artist.” But, he adds, “I myself would consider them risks well taken, because it seems to me that poetry is sterile unless it arises from a sense of community or, at least, from the hope of community.” I appreciate this distinction. The greatest title in a democracy is neither president nor poet. It is citizen. And so I stand with those who see not just the nobility of, but the pragmatic need for, fusing the citizen with the poet.

Originally Published: June 7, 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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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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