Biespiel and Poet Activism

You can't fault David Biespiel.  We're all (mostly) failing the test of political engagement.  His provocative essay in the May 201o issue of Poetry is a cry from the heart for poets to become more engaged in public speech and public action for the betterment of democracy---and for the betterment of  poetry itself.

You can't fault him for his frustration toward anyone who, being "uniquely qualified to speak openly," as he says, fails the test of civic action.  As an emotional plea with the volume turned high, his essay serves the good purpose of animating conversation on the subject of activism and accountability.  I'm all for it--who wouldn't be?--and recommend a reading.  Then again, as an argument against poets specifically, it leaves me wondering, Do poets really carry more of a responsibility for moral leadership than others artists, other professions?  Biespiel suggests it, and I think that's why he's so bothered by what he sees as their insularity and "anti-civic" posture.  But poets, of all people, are poets for a reason.  There is a side to the art that just can't be nurtured through the tussle of activism.  Despite that, and despite Auden's belief that "poets who want to change the world tend to be unreadable," I know plenty of poets who are angry already.

As a mere sample, the book I've just finished, Poetry in Person, contains 23 conversations with poets of all stripes: June Jordan, Robert Pinsky, Charles Simic, Derek Walcott, Lucille Clifton, C.K. Williams, Muriel Rukeyser, Edward Hirsch and Philip Levine, to mention a few, all made particular points of speaking out about accountability--of poets to themselves and to society.  Many of them had been open as activists at different times in their lives.  Biespiel mentions some of them in his essay; but there are dozens of others in the same position he doesn't consider.

We want a great deal from our poets.  The world needs them.  The poetry world is not as bleak as he paints it, however.  Far from it. Should more poets drop the pen, speak out, speak for, speak against?  Write letters to the editor?  Influence friends and congressmen? Perhaps more should.  Shouldn't we all?

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