Letter to the Editor
I found David Biespiel’s “This Land Is Our Land” [May 2010] provocative as well as inspiring. I also thought parts were so wrong they required response. Here are four assertions that Biespiel’s essay seems to make:
1. American poets should join “the nation’s civic, democratic, political, and public life,” in ways not limited to the writing of poems. Poets should run for office, publish political or investigative journalism, or in some other way make “themselves accountable in the public arena,” as Robert Bly (in his prose on gender, religion, and family), Gary Snyder (in his array of work for the environment), and Monica Youn (an election lawyer at nyu’s Brennan Center) have done.
2. Poets should do such things not only because more participation, by anyone, in public life would be good, but also because poets have special powers: “America’s poets are uniquely qualified” (italics mine) “to speak openly in the public square among diverse or divisive communities,” whose divisions poets’ speech might heal.
3. American public life would improve if more poets entered it: poets’ “core values of illumination, imagination, reflection, and sincerity” would help to bring people together, giving us a better chance to address, for example, “climate change . . . immigration, and civil rights.”
4. American poetry would improve, too: it would get better and more people would read it. The audience for poetry would grow even if the poems did not change, because the poets’ names would be in the news. But running for office, suing local officials, or publishing prose about environmental justice might also change what poems the poets wrote, moving them “beyond memory, private reclamation, and linguistic chop-chop” into topics (such as climate change or immigration) with broader appeal.
Biespiel participates (as he must know) in a hoary tradition of attacks on art for art’s sake, of calls for artists to come out of their ivory towers and meet the big, rough world. Out of a sense of public responsibility, out of guilt (an underrated motive), or out of aesthetic interest in public rhetoric and hybrid forms, many American poets have tried to answer such calls in the last few years alone.
Listing poets who do what he considers public work, Biespiel asks, “Why aren’t there more?” How many does he want? Do Juan Felipe Herrera’s decades of work in community-based theater count? What about teaching in prisons, as Herrera, Steve Healey, Gabriel Gudding, Mairéad Byrne, and dozens of other poets have done? What about documenting prison conditions, as in C.D. Wright’s One Big Self? What about this summer’s weeklong event, 95 Cent Skool, led by Joshua Clover and Juliana Spahr, and very much open to newcomers, intent on finding roles for poetry (as Spahr and Clover put it) “in the larger political and intellectual sphere”? Mark Nowak does not just write poetry about unions, pollution, and global poverty; he writes prose about it, and makes documentary films, and works to unionize bookstores (with some success) and to denounce dangerous coal mines.
If such works are public involvement, then American poetry has plenty of public involvement, though there could always be more. And if they are not—if public involvement has to take place in a way wholly divorced from the writing of poems—then it is far from clear that poets, as poets, have any special powers to bring.
The poets Biespiel singles out as effective participants in public life are using skills only loosely related to poetry. Monica Youn is a lawyer (her new and wonderful book of poetry has nothing to do with election law—it’s about Krazy Kat). Gary Snyder and Wendell Berry are environmental activists who know much more about their respective watersheds than they are able to put in their poems.
Claims that poets, as poets, ought to do more in and for our political life—that because we are poets, we ought to run for office, or sue landlords, or publish op-eds—seem unfair to the many poets who have no gift for such things: if you are good at writing gem-like lyrics and no good at writing op-eds, please keep writing gem-like lyrics. (If you are good at writing op-eds—in verse or in prose—please keep writing them, too. Yeats did.)
Such claims can be bad for our poetry, if they lead poets to half-hearted tries at uncongenial forms. They may also be bad for our politics, because they can fuel self-serving delusions that what the nation needs most is what poets can give. The forms and the venues that most poets know how to use now (at least poets who write for the page) are not the forms with the widest, clearest appeal, hence not the modes of greatest utility for the political goals Biespiel commends. Those modes are audiovisual or narrative—the tv script, the tv ad, the speech for live delivery, the mass-market paperback—and they have hard-to-master techniques of their own.
Even there, though, we are still in the realm of rhetoric—of how to use language and images to persuade. Other matters of public political consequence are not about rhetoric, language, or pictures at all. Should we encourage or discourage nuclear power? How fast can we build wind turbines, and where should we put them? If their blades get made in China, should Americans mind? To answer such questions, you have to know facts—what gases enter the atmosphere and how fast, how long nuclear plants take to build, etc. Writers who overemphasize the power of poetry in particular, or the power of rhetoric in general, to solve public problems risk underemphasizing the power of facts; they also risk obscuring the amount of detail, of compromise, of uninspiring, non-musical work (whether of the bean-counting or of the baby-kissing variety) required to change, for the better, what governments—and what any public political action—can do.
I have made telephone calls or knocked on doors for at least one Democrat in nearly every election (including Congressional midterms and the St. Paul, Minnesota, city council) since 2000. That volunteer work led me to write poems I would not otherwise have written. But those poems did not do much to unite America, elect progressive officials, or fight climate change; I hope that they will last because some people like them (though the odds are long). Nor did the fact that I write and publish poetry make me more effective in cold-calling Dem voters or tallying databank lists (my old job writing travel guides prepared me much more). I also learned something about the limits of poetry. Lost elections, lost causes, defeats of all sorts, as in 2002 and 2004, solicit laments, complaints, and jeremiads (and not just the ones I wrote): when you have no practical power, you have a heightened need for imaginative power, for figurative speech. Electoral victories, on the other hand, may produce triumphal odes (see Starting Today: 100 Poems for Obama’s First 100 Days, ed. by Rachel Zucker and Arielle Greenberg), but they soon reveal problems that can’t be solved by rhetoric: problems that require kinds of talents, kinds of knowledge, that poets are no more likely than anyone else to be able to give.
Steph Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of his generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published three collections of poems: Belmont (2013), Parallel Play (2006), and...