David Biespiel’s scolding essay in the latest issue of Poetry would bug me more if its claims weren’t so easy to debunk. Many of the commenters there–and thanks to the Poetry Foundation for not closing them down the way they did the ones at Harriet–did a good job of disemboweling Biespiel’s claims by pointing to a number of contemporary poets who are doing powerful work in both the political and poetical realms.
I understand where Biespiel is coming from, though, and what his goal is (I think). He’s trying to get poets as a class to become more politically vocal, and thereby increase their exposure, and poetry’s exposure by extension. And I applaud that. Poets ought to be good communicators, given our constant work with language, even those poets for whom communication in their work is secondary (or problematic), so it makes sense that in the political arguments of the day that poets ought to be able to provide some clarity.
The thing is, though, we do. The commenters noted the political engagement of the Split This Rock festival, the writing of poet/activists like Martin Espada, Patricia Smith, Naomi Shihab Nye, Joy Harjo, Lorna Dee Cervantes & Sinan Antoon, for example (all poets of color, which doesn’t reflect well on either Biespiel or the Poetry Foundation, frankly). Poets are making their voices heard on everything from health care reform to immigration issues to war protests to even organizing relief efforts for earthquake victims–and if someone doesn’t do something for Nashville, I’ll be really surprised.
If Biespiel is looking for examples of poetic engagement with politics, I’d suggest he check into Split This Rock, journals like Guernica or Ecotone, or drop by The Rumpus sometime, where we often use our platform to bring attention to political issues. Today, for example, we ran two pieces on the immigration debate, one by me and one by Peter Orner. I won’t say he does it often, but Ron Silliman has been known to get political on his blog as well. I can see how Biespiel might miss some lesser (in reach or volume) voices, but how do you miss Silliman?
I don’t want to suggest that, on the whole, poets are manning the barricades shouting “Viva la Revolucion!” in between shifts at the sit-in and the picket line. Biespiel is right, to an extent, that the poetic conversation is insular at times, and that there’s often more concern over protecting one’s poetic turf than there is in conversing across aesthetic boundaries. That’s due, no doubt, in part to the scraps of public attention and monetary reward we’re all competing for. But we are also capable of taking part in more than one conversation, and more to the point, there’s a lot of poets writing a lot of poetry, and many of us are deeply involved in the politics of the day as well. Just get out there more, beyond the major organs of the press and dig down to the–forgive the cliché–grassroots. We’re there and we’re having an effect on the discourse, alongside the community organizers and other writers and activists.