Monday, June 07, 2010

Responding to David Biespiel's This Land Is Our Land

So here’s the original essay, by David Biespiel, first in Poetry Magazine and then in The Huffington Post. It’s the same little essay, so don’t bother reading both. Just choose your venue!

He says things like this: “Instead, I mean to question American poets’ intractable and often disdainful disinterest in participating in the public political arena outside the realm of poetry.”

And he asks the questions: “Is contemporary poetry’s aura of self-reliance mixed with cultural victimhood so pervasive that individual poets shirk any sense of responsibility for addressing matters of civic or political concern? Is it unrealistic to expect the contemporary poet to leave the enclaves of poetry to speak about something other than poetry, and in so doing risk saving American poetry and perhaps American democracy too? Or must we all admit finally that what poetry has become—perhaps was destined to become in our assimilated, couch-potato culture—is simply another industry of hermetic self-specialization?”

And a bit I’d really like to talk about more:

“Now consider the balkanized world of American poetry. 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. Over here you have the post-avant prose poets, over there the kitchen-sink confessionalists, and across the road are the shiny formalists—and no one ever breaks bread together. As with politics, where you have “I’m voting for That One” liberals and “Time for a Tea Party” conservatives, poetry has evolved into a self-selected enclave, and also—exactly like other sectors of American life—it has stratified into enclaves within enclaves that are hyper-specific and self-referential.”

That, more than anything else in the essay, shows to me that Biespiel is living in a very different world than I’m living in. For one thing, why should poets all hang out and be all cross-aesthetic with people of different aesthetic affiliations? Where’s the fun in that? When has that ever happened in the arts, in any age or location? Why is that a sign of some bad cultural movement? I’ve never been a fan of the Unitarian Argument, anyway. But then again, I think of the people I meet and talk to at readings in cities and universities and around at conferences and I realize I spend a LOT of time with people who I don’t particularly agree with, at least not all the way down the line. So Biespiel is wrong twice there.

But anyway, I wanted to write something more about this, but other things kept intruding. Here, though, are two reactions finding some flaws in his argument (if you go, remember to come back!):

Where Tamiko Beyer writes:

“I find it ironic that Biespiel is, himself seemingly too insulated in his own poetry world to recognize the work of established poets such as Myung Mi Kim, the late June Jordan, Martín Espada, Patricia Smith, Joy Harjo, and Juliana Spahr (yes, mostly women and people of color). Not to mention the rich, exciting work of emerging poets who are unabashedly and unapologetically engaging in the poetics of politics – poets such as Craig Santos Perez, Ching-In Chen, Tara Betts are just a few that immediately come to mind.”


Where Brian Spears suggests Biespiel: “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.”

To this I’d like to now add, not something I wrote, but something that I came across in another conversation. It was written by Nicholas Sturm, and it approaches the Biespiel essay from a slightly different perspective. I asked if I could post it here, and so here it is:


Biespiel’s “This Land Is Our Land” manifesto is loaded. Let’s talk about why. First of all, this essay holds a clear partisan bias that, instead of opening up a discourse about poetry's contemporary relationship to politics, wrongly criticizes American poets' lack of civil engagement. Biespiel adopts a liberal humanist rhetoric that supposes poets should be leading "a culturally rich or civically engaged life" in which America's "leading thinkers or writers" will help create a bald eagle-soaring "dialogue with the greater public." (He says later, "a great public"!) Who are America's "leading thinkers or writers"? What is "the greater public" or a "great public"? How is Biespiel's punch line, "This divide between poet and civic life is bad for American poetry and bad for America," anything more than empty political rhetoric? Is that really his thesis? What kind of empire of letters is this guy talking about?

The truth is that Biespiel is something of an artist-insider in the privileged tiers of the American’s “great public.” For the past few years he has been contributing to Washington's political media machine via Politico, a political journalism organization that is financed by Robert Allbritton, a conservative bank and television CEO, and run by Frederick J. Ryan, Jr., the former Assistant to President Ronald Reagan. Yeah, it trickles down. (For fun, consider taking a look at a recent Politico Arena post from Biespiel that puts the blame for the recent BP oil spill on the “American people” ). Even if Biespiel’s contributions are cross-party, as the organization itself claims to be, the issue still remains: what does a poet, or any artist, risk by participating in that kind of shortsighted rhetorical game? Should poets be mimicking P. Diddy and his Vote or Die campaign? Is the former Puff Daddy an example of Biespiel’s civically engaged artist?

As far as the historical foundation Biespiel works off, the influence of Emerson and Whitman on American political poetry is palpable, but is another "Democratic Vistas" really desirable, or even realistic? Is an Emersonian infatuation with the "wealth of the commonwealth" a productive way of imagining art's "duty" to American democracy? Furthermore, Biespiel cites Czech writer Vaclav Havel, the country's first democratic president from 1993-2003, as an example of how American poets might also become politically engaged. What Biespiel leaves out of his foolproof example, and which readers of Poetry magazine might overlook, is that Havel is a playwright, not a poet, and therefore had an intrinsic platform and audience for his art, an audience that can afford that kind of "high" art (no disrespect to Havel), and later gained power from the political and social upheavals in Czechoslovakia during the collapse of the Soviet Union. Would it be better for American poetry if the Soviet Bloc stood at our back door? Maybe widespread civil unrest would do the trick?

One last thing: Biespiel's pandering to Hirsch's presidency of the Guggenheim and Dana Gioia's supposedly praise-worthy work as a "political appointee confirmed by the US Senate" (how is that "good for American poetry"?) does little other than provide a wave of support for a privileged upper echelon of agenda-driven cultural agencies. And the pandering seems to have worked. Earlier this year Biespiel was elected to the Board of Directors of the National Book Critics Circle. Now there’s some cultural power we can appreciate. Maybe it’s just me, but to suggest that "America has turned its back on poetry" because we're not writing poems that could be ticker tape on FOX news is not only absurd, but pompous, arrogant, and historically blind.

- Nicholas Sturm


Paul Otremba sent me a note that was a little too long for a comments box, so I’m, with his OK, posting it as an addendum. Here it is:


There is one assumption that Biespiel makes that I haven’t seen too many people challenge, but if such challenges exist, I’d be grateful to be pointed in their direction. Biespiel’s assumption is that poets by the nature of what they do should be considered competent to address political issues in civic roles. I see how poetry can be a medium for voicing indignation with, or support for, or moral correction to a civic readership or government, but what I don’t see is the evidence for Biespiel’s causal claim between being a poet and being competent to find solutions to “difficult-to-solve public issues such as cultural fragmentation, national health care, decrepit infrastructure, threats of terrorism, energy consumption, climate change, nuclear proliferation, warfare, poverty, crime, immigration, and civil rights.” Upon reading the bravado and utopian overreaching of that litany, I was immediately transported back to the scenes I saw on television during Jesse “The Body” Ventura’s gubernatorial victory, where there were keg stands, moshing, and chants of “We want a politician who is not a politician,” or at least that is how I remember it.

I find a danger to the rhetoric of entitlement and exceptionalism that would claim that “Poets are actually uniquely suited and retain a special cultural gravitas to speak publicly and morally about human aspirations,” which seems to originate for Biespiel in their “core values of illumination, imagination, reflection, and sincerity.” This belief in the poet as a special kind of person who by her very nature and the activity of her work is a more moral being leads too often to the self-righteous and self-satisfied posturing you see in Facebook status updates. Indignation expressed individually and collectively perhaps has proven to have some civic and political efficacy, but it is not a program or set of solutions to real, complex problems. Neither is reading a poem or writing one.

Practicing the attentiveness and sympathy it takes to rigorously write or deeply read poetry can be an activity that offers us what Kenneth Burke might call “equipment for living,” which I think is similar to what William Carlos Williams believes poetry provides us instead of giving us the news. But reading poetry, any kind of poetry, doesn’t make us moral, and writing poetry doesn’t make us good people. The claim that it does is too easy to throw out there, and too easy to throw away. I’m sure many of the execs at Goldman Sachs and AIG read The Inferno in school, although they seem to have forgotten what circle of hell is reserved for those who commit treacherous fraud. You don’t have to read deeply into biographies of Biespiel’s exemplar civic poet “C.O.” Robert Lowell or his letters to realize he was too often an inexcusable jerk.
- Paul Otremba


At 6/07/2010 6:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a frequent reader here, and wanted to share a brief letter I wrote the fine editors at Poetry in response to this Biespiel essay (since they obviously won't be publishing it):

David Biespiel’s “This Land Is Our Land” (May 2010) has the bossy sophomoric zeal of an undergraduate essay that claims we should shut up and listen to the author’s solution when the author still spends his kegger cover on zit cream. The ultimate trajectory of Biespiel’s argument is that poets should cease writing poems altogether and embrace social work, much like Oppen did as a young man (whose absence from this article’s “nifty dozen” is a curious one). As a small poet at a small community college, I certainly agree with the assertion that we shouldn’t let this zeitgeist of Tea Party rage make us lose sight of our common citizenry and obligations to the American family, but the idea that poets, as artists and plyers of language, have an arbitrarily heightened civic duty is preposterous. Have we forgotten Yeats’s famous adage already? When I cut my $20 check to the Food Bank, it has nothing to do with lilting iambs. Indeed, for every “Mending Wall” there is a Kenneth Fearing, and last I checked, those “Poets Against the War” Biespiel mentions not only did nothing to halt the thundering tanks of invasion, but they wrote more than their share of schlocky bathos. And speaking of irony, how curious it is that Biespiel’s democratic jeremiad appears in an issue full of this magazine’s usual suspects (Campion, Stallings, et. al.)? Maybe his essay would be easier to laugh off if it didn’t appear among the pages of Poetry’s tidy little empire.

At 6/07/2010 6:29 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

His essay does seem like Barr redo, which was basically Gioia redo . . . . It’s an argument that’s both vapid and persistent. Why, I wonder. I mean, number one, many poets ARE doing what he’s saying, just as many were doing what Barr and Gioia were saying, and it’s not made THE DIFFERENCE that they claimed it would if poets were to do it. It’s simply nonsense.

At 6/07/2010 6:35 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

The question I have for them is that they MUST know this, so what are they REALLY wanting? What are they really after with these arguments? There HAS to be something more to it.

At 6/08/2010 7:28 AM, Blogger R. Sanford said...

RE: Poetry & 'being political': do what you want your poetry to do with YOUR poetry, don't tell me what I should be passionate about 'doing' with mine

RE: cliques: Like I believe JG was getting at it, this is nothing new & I'm not convinced there's anything wrong with it. Again I feel a prodding of someone telling me what art should mean to me and how I should be going about it; I can never figure out on what grounds people who do this very thing are standing on.

PS: My CAPTCHA for this comment is, somehow appropriately, 'overnag'

At 6/08/2010 8:18 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Sent from Paul Otremba:

"There is one assumption that Biespiel makes that I haven’t seen too many people challenge, but if such challenges exist, I’d be grateful to be pointed in their direction. Biespiel’s assumption is that poets by the nature of what they do should be considered competent to address political issues in civic roles."

I went ahead and addended his full comment onto the post itself, as it's a bit too long for a comment box. - JG

At 6/08/2010 10:04 AM, Blogger Michael said...

The problem is that Biespiel and Barr and Gioia want a poetry that was, not a poetry that is, or will be. Is this symptomatic of the Baby Boomers, or simply any generation that gets power and then loses a sense of itself, which is every generation? Emersonian principles can indeed be applied today, but -- and this is Emerson's very point -- not in the way he did it, not in the way Whitman or Williams or Oppen did it, but in the way we, and only we, must do it. Tho we live in a diff'rent time, the same principles apply. "I follow laws, but not orders" Pound wrote in The Cantos. Verification word: quest. Damn right.

At 6/08/2010 10:50 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I don't think this is symptomatic of the Baby Boomers. I think it just seems that way because there are a lot of baby Boomers out there. It's a form of aesthetic argument I've heard from others, both younger and older. And, as well, there are many Boomers who are not part of this (Silliman, Armantrout, Palmer, Ramke, Ronk, and on) position. It DOES seem like a very male position, however. I've no idea why that should be the case.

At 6/08/2010 12:11 PM, Blogger Kathleen said...

The problem is a deep divide in US culture. People who write and read poems are pretty much of one mind politically and so they're not the audience for polemics. No sense in preaching to the choir.

People who don't read (much of anything, least of all poems) are not going to find poems, read them with an open mind, or be persuaded by anything they say.

Simplistic yes, but I'm not the only person to have noticed this. Both sides have dug in and are very much unwilling to be persuaded otherwise.

If Biespiel can show me what kind of poem to write, or where I can publish it, that will reach the audience he says poets are ignoring, I'll get right on it.

At 6/08/2010 3:33 PM, Blogger Michael said...

Emerson again: "The schools of poets, and philosophers, are not more intoxicated with their symbols, than the populace with theirs. In our political parties, compute the power of badges and emblems. See the great ball which they roll from Baltimore to Bunker hill! In the political processions, Lowell goes in a loom, and Lynn in a shoe, and Salem in a ship. Witness the cider-barrel, the log-cabin, the hickory-stick, the palmetto, and all the cognizances of party. See the power of national emblems. Some stars, lilies, leopards, a crescent, a lion, an eagle, or other figure, which came into credit God knows how, on an old rag of bunting, blowing in the wind, on a fort, at the ends of the earth, shall make the blood tingle under the rudest, or the most conventional exterior. The people fancy they hate poetry, and they are all poets and mystics!"

At 6/08/2010 3:36 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I've thought the same thing myself sometimes . . . show me these poems and this audience! I'll get right on it! Because of course there is nothing there, for if there were something there it would already be there, so to speak.

I'm not sure the sides have dug in so much as they just are what they are. Digging in sounds more like they thought about it and are placing themselves against each other.

At 6/08/2010 3:38 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


"The people fancy they hate poetry, and they are all poets and mystics!"

Oh, that's good. That's fun! I've been to that bar. I've seen that guy!

At 6/11/2010 2:03 PM, Blogger Amy said...

Biespiel's argument partially becomes a fight over the value of accessibility, really. He's implying that we need to not only have an audience in mind, but an audience upon which to impress a certain political statement, implying not only that there's a "right" poet, but also a "right" audience. Ugh.

My personal and artistic point of view tends to boil down to:

a. nothing is sacred, and certainly nothing to do with art
b. "all art is quite useless" (OW) and therein lies its appeal
c. there's no such thing as artistic responsibility, particularly not to "lineage."
d. no one of us is right about any of it

To write poetry is a choice, not an obligation.

This hints a bit too at the idea of "qualification" as much as it does the idea of obligation. The idea that a poet has the unique capabilities needed implies the idea that there's a right kind of person to write poetry, and that this rightness is somehow intrinsic, almost divine, and that's a bit of a stretch. This isn't even to mention implications about education/backround.

I'm also always interested in the idea that we're cloistered in this world, which I don't disagree with, but I've yet to see a truly compelling argument for why that's wrong. Every day we make choices, personal, political, and poetic about who we surround ourselves with, and the idea that to choose one's friends is fine but choosing one's poets somehow isn't is a little bit ludicrous.

I'm sure my perspective here can seem a little selfish, but my answer to that is that that's what poetry is for me in a lot of ways, and so I don't much care about how it "seems" to someone like Biespiel or anyone else.

Forgive me while I fill my bookshelves with things I actually like.

At 6/11/2010 3:03 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


"Forgive me while I fill my bookshelves with things I actually like."


At 6/15/2010 7:46 AM, Blogger knott said...

Is contemporary poetry’s aura of self-reliance mixed with cultural victimhood so pervasive that individual poets shirk any sense of responsibility for addressing matters of civic or political concern? Is it unrealistic to expect the contemporary poet to leave the enclaves of poetry to speak about something other than poetry, and in so doing risk saving American poetry and perhaps American democracy too?


some of us have tried to do that from time to time, albeit with no success,
for one example my "Sort-of-Selected Political Poems 1965-2007" which is a vanity selfpub and ergo doesn't count with Biesphel and the pobiz

At 6/15/2010 8:29 AM, Blogger knott said...

Biespeel could download my politpoems book for free at:

but i suspect he only reads BAPpo's like Dean Young and John Gallaher,

not CRAPpo's like me

At 6/15/2010 8:30 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I think, at least it's been my experience, that the only poets who ever get noticed being political only get noticed (and even then, barely) for radical politics or else they're affiliated with a large publisher or something (Gioia, I guess?).

For the rest of us, once we start being political, we're just more private citizens being political. It makes a difference, but not in the Big Name way that Biespiel thinks he's looking for.

And when poets get political in the poetry itself, well, it usually doesn't go anywhere because overtly narrow political poems are usually overlooked by the very people Biespiel thinks would be all happy to get them.

Or something like that?

At 6/15/2010 8:34 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Aw, there's no need to shoot across my bow about it. You and I both know I'm about as invisible and minor a poet as there is. I'd bet you a quarter Biespiel's never read a poem of mine (unless he just found his name on my blog and did some google hunting) and I'm quite certain he knows about you and has read something of yours. It's not like you've always self-published.

At 6/15/2010 12:51 PM, Blogger knott said...

Beebspiel must read BAP, in which case he's read you, not me


we BAPless many can only envy

you BAPblessed few


your BAPbow sails on

At 6/15/2010 12:58 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

The only thing that being in an issue of the BAP has gotten me is your colorful commentary.


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