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” http://www.politico.com/arena/bio/david_biespiel.html ). 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.
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.