Socialism and Science Fiction
Merely Literary

Poet as Sage

David Biespiel is convinced that "America’s poets are uniquely qualified to speak openly in the public square among diverse or divisive communities," despite their current "intractable and often disdainful disinterest in participating in the public political arena outside the realm of poetry." Although he assures us he agrees that "a poet must make his way in the world as best fits his vision for himself as an artist," nevertheless his essay is so filled with apocalyptic urgency about the need for poets to reclaim a role in "civic discourse" it clearly implies that those who settle for "quiet rooms of contemplation" are neglecting their responsibilities both to democracy and to poetry.

Biespiel wants to maintain a distinction between poets writing a deliberately "civic" poetry and using the "gravitas" that comes from being a poet simply to speak out on public affairs, but ultimately he really can't keep his frustration with the "cliquish" and "self-reflexive" nature of contemporary poetry from condemning it outright, not just for its civic derelictions but for its retreat into "art-affirming debates over poetics and styles." In other words, poetry has become satisfied with the "merely literary."

To an extent, Biespiel's essay seems to me an effort to shame poets into entering public debates by comparing their retreat into insular "coteries" to the larger retreat of Americans generally, who are "self-sorting into homogeneous enclaves," becoming "a collection of increasingly specialized interests":

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.

Surely poets don't want to be like those huddled suburbanites in their gated communities, damaging the public weal in their very tendency to huddle. "Aesthtic sameness" must surely be avoided in poetry as in lawn care. What good is poetry if it gives us only "stylistic breakdowns"?

Biespiel's call for poet-sages to emerge is predicated on the belief that  "Poets are actually uniquely suited and retain a special cultural gravitas to speak publicly and morally about human aspirations." This seems to be an assumption shared by all those who would have both poets and novelists "engage" with the public sphere, but it's a claim  that cannot be sustained if what Biespiel means is that poets have some special ability not just to speak "publicly and morally about human aspirations" but to speak more intelligently or more persuasively about "human aspirations" than anyone else as part of "civic discourse."

Certainly the examples Biespiel provides to support his assertion do little to give it credibility: Allen Ginsburg certainly had plenty to "say" in the public realm, but who doesn't think that a good deal of what he said now seems--probably seemed at the time--rather embarrassing in its simple-mindedness? Adrienne Rich may have spoken up from a feminist perspective, but what kind of public impact did it really make, as opposed to the statements of non-poet feminists such as Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan? Robert Bly is a crank, Dana Gioia a conservative shil, and I'm not sure what Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry, or Charles Simic have ever said that has reached anyone other than their devoted readers who already agree with them.

Biespiel's argument essentially rests on the notion that poets have "the ability. . .to write poems that penetrate differences and discover connection" and partake of poetry's "ancient predisposition for moral persuasion." One could argue that what distinguishes the poet is not primarily his/her ability to "penetrate differences" but to put words together in aesthetically provocative ways and that the connections made are connections between poetry as it has been and poetry as it might be, not between competing "communities," but even if we were to accept Biespiel's amorphous formulation it does not follow that this ability is readily transferable from page to public square. It especially does not follow that whatever "predisposition for moral persuasion" has been attributed to poets over time so naturally manifests itself in modern poets, to most of whom the title "poet" applies in a much more restricted way than it did to Dante or Milton, who did not limit themselves to the lyric mode and who saw fewer differences between poetry and other forms of moral or religious discourse. If most poets now cultivate their own lyrical gardens, it is because that is seen as the appropriate task for the poet, not "moral persuasion."

Even more dubious is Biespiel's accompanying proposition that "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." Exactly why the heretofore unenthusiastic public would suddenly find an interest in sonnets after sampling the poet's political discourse is left unexplored, unless those sonnets turn out to be about "issues" after all--a list of those the "citizen-poet" might take up include "cultural fragmentation, national health care, decrepit infrastructure, threats of terrorism, energy consumption, climate change, nuclear proliferation, warfare, poverty, crime, immigration, and civil rights"--and are not really separable from his/her civic pronouncements. It's hard to know otherwise what would lead people indifferent to poetry to seek it out, so wide is the gap between private and public, at least according to Biespiel in the rest of his analysis. If the sonnets, odes, and elegies are primarily concerned with "memory, private reclamation, and linguistic chop-chop," as Biespiel has it, why would a public yearning for "moral persuasion" bother with it?

I don't want to suggest that poets, or any other writer, or any other citizen, should not enter into "civic discourse." As concerned human beings, of course they should take whatever actions, rhetorical or literal, they think they must. I suppose that the residual esteem still attached to the vocation of "poet" does even give their public words some additional weight, and if particular poets exploit the opportunity given to speak wisely or act courageously on matters of public importance they perform a commendable service. Such a public intervention is only tangentially, even accidentally, related to their work as poets, however, and to laud them for doing it (or condemning them for not) while ignoring the work devalues poetry rather than saving it. It suggests that poetry is mostly good for something else, something other than being itself. Why must the value of poetry be judged by its potential to be a good tune-up for speaking out on more important matters?


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